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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 664 vi
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Public Administration Committee
The Future of the Civil Service
Wednesday 27 February 2013
Carolyn Downs and Derrick Anderson
Evidence heard in Public Questions 513 - 622
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected 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.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Taken before the Public Administration Committee
on Wednesday 27 February 2013
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)
Mr Steve Reed
Examination of Witness
Witness: Damian McBride, Head of Communications, CAFOD, gave evidence.
Q513 Chair: Can I welcome our witness this morning for this first session on Civil Service reform this morning? Could you just identify yourself for the record, please?
Damian McBride: Thank you, Mr Chairman. My name is Damian McBride. I was a special adviser to Gordon Brown from 2005 to 2009. Before that I had a nine-year career in the Civil Service working in Customs and Excise and the Treasury. I am currently the Head of Communications at the Catholic aid agency CAFOD.
Q514 Chair: Thank you for being with us this morning. I wonder if we could just start by drawing on your experience as a special adviser. That is against an extraordinary background, because you were a special adviser who had grown up as a civil servant and had been ticked off, I suppose, by the Cabinet Secretary for becoming too political, and therefore becoming a special adviser. Then you suffered the pressures of being a special adviser and it ended rather unhappily. What lessons do you think the Government and the Civil Service need to draw from that experience?
Damian McBride: The lesson I learnt and I was all too conscious of at the time was that I had gone on in the job far too long. Having been in a frontline Civil Service position for a great length of time, with a prominent position in the Treasury in the tax policy team and then becoming Head of Communications in the Treasury, and then four years in a prominent special adviser position, going from Treasury to Downing Street, I got to a stage around 2008 where I effectively wanted out. I did not want to be there anymore because I felt that, while it was not necessarily about me, I was a part of too much of the coverage that was around rather than being the person who was responsible just for generating coverage or preventing bad stories. I had become part of the story, which is the classic example.
I made moves around the end of 2008 to try to exit Downing Street, and while I would not say I was prevented from doing so, I was persuaded that my role there was too important and I had to stay on and carry on. After that, it was a bit of an accident waiting to happen-that I would get myself into that kind of problem. With the benefit of six months’ hindsight, I was able to look back on that period and just say, "Why on earth did you feel tired with a great job like that?" It was a fantastic place to work and a fantastic opportunity; "How on earth could you get to a point where you didn’t want to be doing it anymore?" I was also able to look back at that small period around the start of 2009 and think, "What on earth was going through your head to get involved in what you got involved in?"
Q515 Chair: In terms of how you were looked after, there were clearly intense political pressures on you to remain and carry on serving your political masters. Was there no other support to turn to? Did your permanent secretary not say, "Yes, I can understand you’re in an increasingly difficult position, and I will support you in that decision"? How do we prevent special advisers basically being corrupted by the system? It sounds to me in a way you were.
Damian McBride: It helps when you have a few salutary lessons. Ministers in a similar position to the one that Gordon Brown found himself in, where he had a special adviser saying, "Look, this is all a bit too much for me and I want out," should almost certainly do what Tony Blair did with Alastair Campbell and just say, "Right, fine. That’s it." Arguably, Tony Blair should have done that earlier with Alastair Campbell. Based on my experience you would be foolish as a Minister if you had a special adviser saying to you, "This is all getting a bit too much and I want to do something different," and you did not accede to their wishes and say, "Right, I will help you get an exit."
Q516 Chair: When you see special advisers getting into difficulties, as we have in this Parliament and the last Parliament, what do you feel is wrong with the system that allows it to happen?
Damian McBride: There are two different types. You get the type like me: in my early years as a special adviser and, indeed, in a senior communications position in the Treasury, I tried to keep my nose pretty clean. Gradually you build up tensions with individual journalists and they eventually become public.
Q517 Chair: That is what is remarkable about your situation, because you were trained as a professional civil servant. All your instincts should have been to keep yourself out of that kind of difficulty.
Damian McBride: Yes.
Chair: Yet you finished up exactly in that place because of the pressures on you to presumably carry out that kind of role.
Damian McBride: I would not say that. I think that would be blaming the system too much. A lot of it was about the environment I worked in and the extent to which I embraced that environment. That is a lot to do with the culture in the relationship between people doing the job I was doing and journalists, which we have obviously heard a lot about over the last year or two, and it is a lot to do with the culture of Westminster generally.
There are a lot of people who do that job for a great length of time and never have those kinds of problems. A special adviser I have great admiration for is Mark Davies, who worked for Jack Straw for many years. He was always a very downtoearth, solid guy, who just did his job and did it very professionally. He came out with his reputation massively enhanced from that long period working in Government. He clearly has the kind of character that was able to do that, but he was also very grounded. He had a family.
Q518 Chair: Are you saying you were the wrong sort of person to be a special adviser?
Damian McBride: Not necessarily, but it does not help when you do not have a family life and your social life is effectively mixing with journalists at all hours of the night every single day, basically. That almost becomes your life. I remember the feeling when people would say I compounded the offence that I committed by sending those emails from my Downing Street computer. I think that compounded the disgust that a lot of people felt-that this was an Office of State being used.
Q519 Chair: But whichever computer you had been using, it would have been wrong.
Damian McBride: Of course, but what I mean is that for me I had stopped making any distinction between a life outside of work and working life.
Q520 Chair: I think that is what the public and a lot of us in Parliament find disturbing: that the system can spin out of control like that and people can lose their perspective.
Damian McBride: Yes, and it comes from allowing your life to be totally overtaken by that. In some ways, when I talked to journalists and some Ministers I worked for, they would say that is what made me an effective special adviser-that I never switched off. For the entire period from 2003 to 2009 that I was doing that job, I was literally at funerals and taking phone calls from the press; I would be cooking Christmas lunch and taking phone calls from Gordon Brown. It was allconsuming, and I was quite happy with that because I did not have much of a life outside of that-or at least I was happy to subsume it to that work.
Q521 Chair: Thank you for being so frank with us. It is very useful. Of course, the biggest special adviser story is perhaps Steve Hilton and the report of his thoughts about his experiences in Downing Street. What do you think about what he said? What most strikes you about it?
Damian McBride: I have written about this previously. I was very struck by what he said about the impossibility of keeping an eye on everything that is going on inside Government or everything that is coming through Downing Street. The way he expressed that was to say that it was impossible to read 35 Cabinet papers each week and the 50 submissions that go via the Prime Minister. The point I made about that was it is precisely because that is impossible that systems were set up so you do not have to do that. Everyone thinks of the Downing Street grid as being set up just as a guide to what is going on in Government and what we are announcing from one day to the next, allowing people like Alastair Campbell to shuffle around announcements from one day to the next. It really was not about that. It was about having a mechanism for keeping in touch and on top of everything that the Government machine was doing without having to wade through all those Cabinet papers and submissions.
Q522 Chair: So it was actually a tool of governance. It was not just a tool for managing the media.
Damian McBride: No, not at all. In some ways I regarded the media side of it as being a much lesser thing. It was meant to avoid clashes and it was meant to avoid incongruities, where you would be one day announcing doing some great big thing about libertarian philosophy and the next day you were announcing that you were clamping down on the amount of sugar in sweets. It was meant to avoid those kinds of problems. The much bigger task it served, though, was being able to go through every single thing that the Government was planning to announce or that a parliamentary committee was planning to look into, and make sure that everyone was lined up to deal with those and that you would spot problems before they emerged.
Q523 Chair: It is a very outwardfacing management tool, rather than an internally consistent strategic tool, or do you think it was an internally consistent strategic tool as well?
Damian McBride: What it did not do by any means was provide a means of managing what the Government is about for the long term and what it is going to focus on as its big strategy. That had to go on separately. That had to be the sort of thing that someone like Steve Hilton would spend their time doing. That is the kind of thing that should feed in to Queen’s Speeches, Budgets and the speeches that leaders make at party conferences. That is where you should set out your big agenda and your big strategy.
Q524 Chair: You are saying that Steve Hilton had started trying to be the grid in the absence of the grid and had perhaps neglected that more strategic side of his job-or been forced to do so, as he felt.
Damian McBride: I think he is probably trying to explain, "Why is it that I had this big strategy and this big sense of what the Government should be about and what our priorities should be, and how did that go wrong?" It went wrong because we were thrown off course by things like Defra announcing what was called the privatisation of the forests. He would say, "How am I supposed to know that is what Defra are proposing to announce in that consultation document? I would have to read 35 Cabinet papers in order to get that."
That is nonsense. All you would need to do is sit down and go through the grid process, where two weeks out, or even three or four weeks out, there would be an item on the grid with a bit of narrative around it saying, "Defra are planning to announce a consultation on how we best manage the forestry programme." Even if that was all that said at that point, that allows you-if you are Steve Hilton, Andy Coulson, Alastair Campbell, me or whoever was doing that job-to say, "What’s that? We need to know more about that." You could see a headline, and if I saw that in the grid I would think, "The Sunday Telegraph will run that as the privatisation of the forests." If you did not ask that question, then you are not really doing your job.
Lindsay Roy: The Chairman has preempted the very questions I was going to ask.
Chair: I am very sorry.
Lindsay Roy: It is okay.
Chair: You can carry on if you want to.
Lindsay Roy: No, it is fine.
Q525 Chair: Can I perhaps just finish this? Does the grid actually help the Civil Service as a system respond to the modern pressures on Government? You mentioned submissions, for example. Do you think the submissions system really has had its day? It is a very antiquated institution and it is a very cumbersome system for Ministers to be forced to make decisions. It tends to present Ministers with decisions rather than allowing Ministers to drive decisions. Do you think the submissions system is really out of date?
Damian McBride: I am a bit out of date in my perspective of looking at it. I would go back to when I was a policy official. My job for three years or so was vetting every single submission that came in from Customs and Excise to go to a Treasury Minister for a decision. I would largely be looking at those submissions and sending them back to Customs and Excise saying, "This doesn’t do the job," for all sorts of reasons. If it was a 50page thing that was obscuring the big issue that they needed to be thinking about, then it had to be boiled down to what matters. Also, if something was very lazily done-if there were a section on risks relying on data that was five years out of date, then you would have to throw that back at them and say, "That’s not a sound basis to make a decision, because that data is out of date. How do they know they can take it with confidence?"
Q526 Chair: Wouldn’t meetings work better than submissions?
Damian McBride: They would, but there is a counter to that. As I say, there is a risk that, if you are not ticking the boxes that submissions force you to tick in terms of the analysis that you have to do, then you risk just making decisions based on the executive summary: "Here is this idea. This is whom it is going to be popular with. This is a good idea. Are you happy to go along with it." That is exacerbated once you get to meetings or the caricature of sofa Government, where you are not then thinking in depth about what the implications are and who the losers as well as the winners are. It is all too easy to make decisions like that.
Q527 Chair: Famously, Michael Heseltine insisted on onepage submissions.
Damian McBride: That was probably a way of enforcing that discipline on a Civil Service that was used to sending 50- or 60-page submissions and expecting them to read them.
Chair: So shorter submissions whatever.
Damian McBride: Yes.
Q528 Paul Flynn: I think it was Churchill who had halfpage submissions. Can I just say that I thought the blogs that you put in are the best evidence we have had in this Inquiry and the most telling? That is possibly because of your roles in the two. I am particularly fascinated by your quoting some of the many cockups in last year’s Budget, saying, "They tried that on us in 2005." Margaret Thatcher said something similar to one of her Education Ministers: "They used to try that on me when I was Secretary of State for Education." When the new lot come in, whoever they are-and they are masters of the universe and going to change life as we know it on this planet-is there a degree of naivety and a lack of any memory there that you had as a past civil servant?
Damian McBride: One of the examples I gave-just so this does not feel like I am knocking the Treasury incumbents-was Alistair Darling’s first Budget. There was a very notable measure in that to increase the road tax that older cars above a certain engine size would pay to bring them in line with the road tax that new cars of a similar pollution level were going to have to pay. That is a measure that we had turned down for three years running previously for the politics rather than the environmental concerns. Mainly, it was going to whack a huge number of people who had bought cars in good faith a few years ago without knowing that they would then face this massive hike in road tax. It is more a case that having turned that down for three years running-from a team who, for all the sensible environmental reasons and revenueraising reasons to some extent, are proposing that each year but having it turned down for political reasons-that is a legitimate thing for a civil servant to do. If they then put it back another year and, as you allude to, you do not have the institutional memory that says, "Hold on a minute; there’s a big pitfall here," then you would let that measure go.
Q529 Paul Flynn: Lots of the evidence we have had-it has not been political in any way-would suggest that Oppositions behave in a certain way and Governments behave in a certain way, and they exchange scripts. Lord Hennessy talked about at this point in a Government where, having blamed the last lot, the European Union and the Civil Service for their problems, they have nothing much left. The Civil Service are now getting it in the neck with the war against Whitehall that is going on. Do you find that this is the case and that there are lessons to be drawn? The stuff about your grid was fascinating. We are looking to the future Governments and so on and how they get away from this idea that measures are going through without scrutiny, and Steve Hilton listening to the Today programme to find out what the Government he is advising is doing. It is a bizarre situation.
Damian McBride: What I find interesting, just going back to the grid issue, is that that documentation is still being produced and those meetings are still happening, but they are not being attended by the right people, as far as I know from talking to people.
Q530 Paul Flynn: If he was there with a foot of papers, which Steve Hilton says he was, it is clearly not working.
Damian McBride: He should not be. As I say, there is a way of managing that sort of volume without looking at it, because there are civil servants there that are digesting it all for you and putting it into a package telling you all you need to know. Those meetings are still happening and that information is still there, but if you are a civil servant it is not up to you to say, "There is a potential bad headline there. Someone should probably ring the Secretary of State for Defra and say, ‘Are you sure about this?’" That is not their job. They will continue producing the papers, but if no one is listening, what can they do?
Q531 Paul Flynn: You said in your fascinating blog and submissions that Gordon Brown took too few of his trusted civil servants from the Treasury into Number 10 when he became Prime Minister. Instead, the bulk of his staff that he imported to Number 10 were political advisers. What lessons about the roles of special advisers and the Civil Service would you draw from this? What would you suggest should be done in future?
Damian McBride: Downing Street and the Treasury are set up very similarly, in that you have someone who is shadowing the Home Office and someone shadowing the Foreign Office etc. in Civil Service positions in the Treasury and in Downing Street. Gordon Brown inherited, or in some cases brought in fresh, excellent people to do that sort of work of shadowing the Home Office and the Foreign Office, but they were all new to him. That meant that it was very difficult for him to establish the relationship of trust that he had with the individuals who were doing that job in the Treasury. My argument was that in retrospect he should have imported those individuals that were doing those jobs at the Treasury because that would enable him to devolve more responsibility, whereas he was tending to micromanage a lot of what these experts were telling him and insisting on having very long meetings when he did not really need to.
Q532 Paul Flynn: Sean Worth, who is a former special adviser at Number 10 under this Government, has said if you want to do tough things, you need political people-he meant special advisers-to do it rather than the Civil Service. Was this view prevalent while you were at Number 10?
Damian McBride: I am not sure. I tend to agree on what the ideal model is, and I am hardly saying that the Brown Downing Street was the ideal model of how to run the Government by any means. I thought that what Lord O’Donnell said before this Committee about having a mix of special advisers and civil servants under John Major’s Government was probably right. I would go further than that, which is that in some ways they should be a bit seamless. It should be the best person for the job.
It might very well be that the current Prime Minister would say he has an excellent person that he wants to bring in from the IPPR or somewhere like that, or someone who is working as a special adviser for the Home Secretary, who would be great to do this job as their policy adviser inside Downing Street. He should not be constrained in doing that by thinking he cannot because they are not civil servants. He should just be able to say he wants the best person to come in and fulfil those roles in the Policy Unit. It should not be about whether they are a political adviser or a civil servant. It is just whether they are the best person for the job.
Q533 Paul Flynn: I will make this a final question. The impression we have is of Government, which is hugely complex, being run with great attention to the big-ticket decisions-the ones that are likely to get the headlines. But most decisions come from this fog of ignorance, where people are unprepared for them, and then it is up to some poor junior Minister to defend the indefensible. Is that a fair picture of how Government has been run under both Governments?
Damian McBride: You need mechanisms to deal with that. Again, going to the Budget process, the reason that by and large there were not small measures in Gordon Brown’s Budgets that got out of hand was because every measure was treated with the same degree of seriousness. Every one of them had the potential to be the problem on the day or the problem in the next couple of days.
I distinctly recall one of the Budgets or preBudget reports that Michael Howard, who was then the Leader of the Opposition or Shadow Chancellor-I am not sure which-responded to. The first thing he said was, "Well, it’s all very well what you’ve heard in this statement, but what the Chancellor hasn’t told you about is the new VAT measure on spectacles." As the VAT policy official at the time, a chill ran down my spine thinking, "What on earth is he talking about?" I was expecting to be summoned across to the House: "What on earth is going on here?" I was on the phone to Customs and Excise. When I did get there, got to the bottom of it and came over, the reaction I had from Ed Balls, who was then Chief Economic Adviser and sitting in the box advising Gordon Brown on his statement, was totally calm. He said, "I knew it wasn’t in the Budget, because if it had been I would have known about it."
Q534 Paul Flynn: I have a final, final question. In the last four days, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday have led on one story only, which is the unfortunate alleged handson approach by certain Liberal Democrats. That news item does not deserve front-page treatment for five days or whatever it might be, but almost certainly it is determined by what is going to happen in Eastleigh tomorrow. How important was the Daily Mail expectation of treatment of stories or how much effect did that have on you when you were dumping unwise policies?
Damian McBride: I would not say the Daily Mail was vastly more important than any other paper, but there was a sense in which it could be agendasetting. There was a very clear sense that the Daily Mail could set the agenda for the Today programme and that that has a knockon effect. That is why you needed to pay attention to it, but equally I would say of all the newspapers that I dealt with over the years, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph were the ones where any sense that you could spin them was nonsense.
Q535 Chair: Can I just follow up on this? Isn’t this the terrible problem in modern Government? Maybe it has always existed in a different form, but it is not the big-ticket items that are actually the big-ticket items. The big-ticket items on Budget day are the minutiae-the tiny little things like the pasty tax or the VAT on spectacles. The big-ticket items are the bits that get sidelined, because the press go for these other ones. We all know that The Sun leads on petrol tax and beer duty when the big-ticket item is the deficit and what is happening with that. That tends not to be the big story on Budget day. How do we get Government to concentrate on the really important stuff and not get sidetracked by these very high-profile little items?
Damian McBride: And how do you stop Governments pulling rabbits out of the hat precisely because they want a distraction from those numbers? There is a classic example of this in Alistair Darling’s first Budget, where the big measure was the temporary reduction in VAT for a year. Because that came out in a totally haphazard way about three days earlier, there was this sudden sense around the Treasury and Downing Street of being absolutely stuck, because that was the only thing that was going to take attention away from the dire figures on growth and borrowing. Sure enough, that was the one Budget where you could absolutely say that on the day afterwards people said there was only one story: the growth in borrowing figures.
The one point I would make is that I can distinctly recall Gordon Brown and Ed Balls sometimes having these conversations, where even if Gordon Brown was saying, "We’ve got to do something that will get on top of bad news," if there were bad news in the numbers, the advice he would get from Ed Balls and Ed Miliband was, "There are times when you just need to say, ‘We’ll just write this one off.’" My snap judgment on the last preBudget statement was that I think everyone was expecting that to be almost one of these statements that were a bit of a writeoff: we just accept it is going to be bad news on borrowing and on growth.
Instead, there was this very clear attempt by the Treasury to get on top of that by announcing a whole bunch of other things. The danger in that is that you just store up the problem for yourself. It is always sensible that-and you could afford to do this if you are Gordon Brown and have been Chancellor for this length of time-there is a point at which you just say, "Let’s accept that we reconfigure where people’s expectations are of where borrowing and growth are going to be for the next three years. Let’s stop trying to get on top of it each time." You can always do that from time to time.
Q536 Robert Halfon: Just putting the negative stuff that affected you in your last years to one side, do you think Downing Street needs a Damian McBride?
Damian McBride: Not to talk about myself in the third person, it depends what kind of Damian McBride or what era I was working in.
Q537 Chair: Describe who he is in that context.
Damian McBride: In a positive sense, you need someone who is prepared to get on top of every single thing that is going on and spot problems. Not to get into the issue we were talking about that has been on the front of the Daily Mail for the past three days, I do not think anyone would be in any doubt that that story-which might be a terrible story anyway-has been made worse by the media handling and by people not seeing it as a media problem coming down the pipe. This Committee has reflected on this before, and Lord O’Donnell when he was before the Committee recently said as far as he was concerned special advisers were a good thing, but special advisers doing briefing and media were a bad thing.
I do not think you can see the two as separate, because if you are not paying attention to the potential media problems-or just potential problems, but if the media is going to light on them, then you know they are big problems-it does not give you the space, the freedom and almost the momentum in some ways to concentrate on your big-picture items and delivering your big strategy. In some ways that was what Steve Hilton was getting at, but I think he had the wrong prescription for it, which is, "Well, it’s all because there is too much paper in the system." It is not about that. It is about having the dedication to spend time thinking, "What’s the issue that is going to cause us a problem here?" and then dedicating yourself to solving it.
The thing I would reflect on though-and part of what I found very wearing and debilitating in that job-was working flat out for 12 hours to stop the story happening, to stop a problem emerging, and to see something that was coming down the pipe and really go to war with another Department to stop them making an announcement. You come out of the door feeling very bruised at the end of the day. It is midnight; you have missed the last Tube home, and you have nothing to show for what you have done. All you have done is produced nothing.
Chair: That sounds like Opposition.
Damian McBride: I compared it to being the safety inspector in a nuclear power plant. You have had a good day when it has not exploded, but nobody has noticed. Nobody is patting you on the back for it, unless you are going to be the grandstanding type who wants to go around and say, "I did this and I did that." I did not particularly operate in that way.
Q538 Robert Halfon: Steve Hilton was seen more as a guru rather than a Damian McBride type, hence the Twitter satire @SteveHiltonGuru. Do you think the current Downing Street needs more people like you who understand the machine and are more political?
Damian McBride: Yes, but I do not think it is necessarily the political aspect that gives you that. Certainly, I would have been much more effective in my job if I had stayed away from politics. There is an alternative history to this that Lord O’Donnell intervened to suggest, but the way it was put to me at the time was the reason I was asked to become a special adviser in the first place was that I was found to be operating very effectively as a Civil Service Head of Communications in terms of stopping problems, in terms of getting alongside the media and getting intelligence about what the views and potential problems were. I could only continue doing that job for any length of time if I became a special adviser, because no Civil Service department would have allowed someone to stay in that kind of role for more than three or four years, not least because other people’s career plans would have had that job in mind. That was why I got involved in that, but that was the skill that I had at that time. Doing it politically did not make any difference to that. As I say, over time it probably weakened my ability to do that job because it meant that I became a known figure.
Q539 Robert Halfon: Apart from the grid, which you have talked about, what would you do to improve the Downing Street operation? What would you do if you were there today?
Damian McBride: It is very hard to say, because unless you are in it, you cannot quite tell what the problems are. The thing I would say is that I do look at the comparisons between the periods in the current Downing Street operation and the periods that we had under Gordon Brown where you are under the cosh. The one thing that I would very strongly say in retrospect, looking back at the Gordon Brown era, is: do not try to announce your way out of crises; do not think that the answer to being under the cosh is to come up with a big distraction. That way you end up compounding your problems and you end up with announcements that go off halfcock. There have been some examples of that. I think of the childcare tax credit relief that came as a big announcement with a big fanfare; it was downgraded and then ended up being a mess of what Liberal Democrats thought and what the Conservatives thought. That comes of thinking, "We’ve got to have something to try to get on top of the problems we’re having." In some periods when you are under the cosh, you almost have to sit back, let it wash over you a bit and keep concentrating on the big picture.
Q540 Chair: Do you think there is in fact a culture that has grown up in Downing Street that being in Government is about managing things that are going wrong rather than managing a positive programme?
Damian McBride: Ideally you should have a very clear strategy and a very clear programme for delivering it and not let problems get in the way. You can only do that if you have mechanisms for managing those problems or stopping them happening in the first place. It is the case that you cannot even get the public to hear about the positive things you are doing if the front page of the Daily Mail for three days in a row is about the crisis you have just had or the problem you have just created for yourselves. That is where the balance lies.
Q541 Lindsay Roy: Can I just clarify? Are you saying that the focus on career planning, if not succession planning, has at times overridden the effectiveness of the Civil Service?
Damian McBride: There is a tendency, especially with the very good civil servants that from a very early age are identified as going places, to move them on quite quickly. It is almost like a boxticking exercise. Even if they are working very effectively in one area, they can find themselves switched on. That might be the right thing if you think that ultimately you want to get those individuals into the top positions.
The problem with that, though, is that it means in places like the Treasury and probably to some extent the Foreign Office it is like turning up for the 1st XI trials on the first day of school, and if you have a good game that day, that is it; you are on the board for the rest of the time that you are in school. There are people who were sick that day and did not get a look in that are continually trying to impress. There is a tendency to think, "We’ve got our high fliers; we have our cadre of people that are identified as the best and the brightest," and others struggle to get a lookin. That is even just within a Department like the Treasury, and obviously there is a much broader problem than that about whether they are recognising talent outside the Civil Service. That selfselected group of high fliers being moved on quickly from one job to the next so we can get them into Downing Street as quickly as possible is becoming a problem.
Q542 Lindsay Roy: So therefore there have been problems of continuity and perhaps confidence in the ability of people to take things up at short notice.
Damian McBride: Certainly within those individual units people move on from quickly. Where there is plenty of continuity or too much continuity is in this production line of people that are coming through the same types of jobs into the same types of higher jobs and then eventually going on to become Cabinet Secretary.
Q543 Lindsay Roy: So they have been acculturated.
Damian McBride: Yes.
Q544 Greg Mulholland: Just going back to your description of dealing with crises and negative events, you said that the strategy often was to bring in new blood-bring in new people to try to deal with those, and that that was a very unsuccessful strategy. You have also mentioned and compared that to the criticism of the current Number 10 staffing and the balance there. What would you say to the current Prime Minister about how to respond to that criticism?
Damian McBride: You have to ask yourself, going back to Gordon Brown, "When was it going well?" and "Was it going well with these people that I have at the moment?" in which case it is not their fault. It is not a case of needing new people who can turn this around. In some cases that will make things worse. Very clearly that was the case with Gordon Brown after 2008, when there was a sense that Downing Street was in crisis: "These people served me well in the Treasury"-and the press was saying this at the time-"but they’re not equipped to do the Downing Street job and, therefore, I need to bring in new managerial types to better run Downing Street." I am not sure that was the right judgment.
Q545 Greg Mulholland: Does the quite notable public criticism of civil servants by some Ministers surprise you? Does that perhaps suggest that still the easiest thing to do is to blame the people who are working underneath you rather than dealing with the problems that are there?
Damian McBride: I do not think it helps morale, and I certainly get that sense from talking to a lot of civil servants. I sometimes have a slight qualm about whether civil servants are almost conniving in this. For example, I do not think that civil servants in Downing Street were shocked when Tony Blair talked about scars on his back. I think it was probably a civil servant who wrote that speech for him. It is always possible for certain civil servants in senior positions to say, "He’s not talking about me. He’s talking about the other people." In the Department for Education: "He’s not talking about us. He’s talking about the teaching system and public servants in a wider sense." Ultimately, if you get the sense that this is just a mantra that is coming out again and again, it does become demoralising after a while.
Q546 Mr Reed: In your blog at the time of last year’s Budget you wrote that you thought the proposals the Chancellor was announcing may not have undergone the intense level of scrutiny of previous years. If that were the case, would you consider that to be a failing by Ministers or by civil servants?
Damian McBride: It is probably a failing of the system. If you are assuming the system is as it was, then Gordon Brown as Chancellor had to take it on trust that the scorecard process that was being managed by Ed Balls and Ed Miliband with civil servants was being done effectively. They came to tell him, "These are the measures that have been signed off by Ministers and have gone through the scorecard process and we’re recommending to you for inclusion in the Budget," and every single one of those would have to be signed off by him. He had to take it on trust that that process had been done thoroughly. I imagine the current Chancellor may well have been kicking himself that he did not look more carefully at all of these measures, but I think he would have been entitled to kick back at the process a bit and kick back at the system to say, "You weren’t doing your job for me."
Q547 Mr Reed: Who is responsible for the system, though? Is it Ministers, civil servants or both?
Damian McBride: It depends on when it goes wrong for the first time. I came to the conclusion, looking at the current Chancellor’s first two Budgets, that precisely to avoid having these potential pitfalls he had decided, "I want to strip the Budget back to the 15 or so key measures, and every one of those will have been gone over with a finetooth comb, and they all will support my big strategic objectives." What happened in the last Budget was what often happens in these kinds of periods, where you will just have a request going out to Revenue and Customs, to the tax teams in the Treasury and to other teams saying, "We need £12 billion and you need to come up with a way of generating that income." If you do that, you have to be intensely careful about what comes back, because civil servants will do their job. They will pick off the shelf the measures that they know will raise £500 million and put that into the system. If the system then is not carefully scrutinising those, you have a big problem.
Q548 Mr Reed: An element of that is the political antennae that politicians are there to bring rather than civil servants.
Damian McBride: Yes, it is about asking the right questions. I would have been very disappointed if I was doing my old job-not to criticise any of my old Treasury colleagues-and I had let through any of those eventual Uturns on VAT and other areas. Precisely because I was doing that job, when I became a political adviser I recognised some of these same things coming up from Customs and Excise.
The other thing I would say is that this is a twoway street. There are things that civil servants perennially put up to fix little anomalies in the system that annoy them and raise a bit of money, but what I also found is that you can have political advisers and Ministers to some extent wanting to look at particular options, and civil servants will close them down. Civil servants will say, "That’s not yours because it is technical."
Just to give an example of this-and it might be an idea for the Chancellor to ask this question-in a discussion with someone in the oil industry, I asked the basic question, "Why is it that diesel always goes to a higher price than petrol over the winter months." He said, "It is simple. It is because you’re making us make ultra low sulphur diesel. Because of the particular specification, we’re having to add so much kerosene to our diesel compound, and because kerosene goes up in price during the winter months because it is used as a heating fuel, that’s why it always goes up 3p or 4p." I got in touch with Customs and Excise and said, "Look, great thing here. We can announce that effectively, just by changing the specification, we’ll get a 3p or 4p reduction in the price of diesel."
The reaction from Customs and Excise was "No. We are not even prepared to look at this because this is a technical issue about what we choose to call ultra low sulphur diesel, which is in line with European standards," and this sort of thing; "We’re not prepared to look at it." I persuaded Ministers to ask Customs and Excise, and they would still say, "No. We’re not even prepared to put up the submission that would allow you to make a decision." That is all I was asking: "Just allow them to make the decision." Their attitude was that there are some technical and administrative things that are nothing to do with Ministers. That struck me as very wrong.
Mr Reed: Very, yes-a fine line to tread.
Chair: Did you win?
Damian McBride: No, so it is still on the shelf if the Chancellor wants it.
Robert Halfon: I will be asking the Chancellor to take this up.
Q549 Mr Reed: We will be looking out at the Budget this year for any example of that. This Committee had a look at the problems around the Budget last year and found that those may have been caused in part by the Government’s inability to express coherent and relevant strategic aims. That is what the Report said. In your view, how well does the Budget process fit with the Government’s overall strategic aims?
Damian McBride: As a general thing, if you look at all of Gordon Brown’s Budgets, there was a very clear thing right at the start of the process-which I think needs to be seen in parallel with that scorecard process of just generating a bunch of ideas that could go into this-when he would sit down and almost write the speech in his own mind. He would say, "Based on what’s happening with the world economy and all of what we’re seeing out there, this is what this Budget needs to be about." It could be that he says, "Given the stability that we’ve achieved and given that public finances are in relatively good shape, this allows us to make the big investment in supporting families, pensioners or the NHS," or it might be in leaner times that he is able to say, "While not sacrificing our stability, we must take steps to reinforce it for the long term," in which case it would be a revenueraising Budget.
He would have a very clear sense right at the start about what the big picture and objective is, and then everything boils down from that. He could say right at the start of the process, "And I want the biggest thing that we do in this Budget to be support for pensioners." Just as a result of saying that, you end up three months later with free TV licences for pensioners, because some civil servant somewhere will say, "I’ve got an idea and I’ve spoken to the BBC and we’re able to do this, and it will cost us x." You might look at that measure, which was announced as one of Gordon Brown’s "and I have one further announcement…" and say, "Isn’t that gimmicky? It’s just about rabbits out of the hat; it’s just about the next day’s headlines," but it came from a very clear strategic sense that the biggest thing in that Budget was pensioners.
Q550 Chair: Can I just press you on this strategic question? Was it the strategy of the Government consciously to heat up the City of London and turn it into a cash milch cow for the Government to be able to spend lots more money and reduce taxes? He did not reduce taxes; he carried on putting them up, but was that the strategy of the Government?
Damian McBride: I would put it slightly the other way. I think there was a very early strategic decision way back in 1994, but it then bled through into every piece of Treasury thinking after that: "We must be on the side of enterprise. In every decision we must be on the side of enterprise."
Q551 Chair: That is not very strategic though, is it? Maybe it is politically.
Damian McBride: There is an argument it is more tactical: "If we have a choice between two decisions, we will offer the enterprise one."
Q552 Chair: Was it an intended strategy to increase public spending to a shade over 50% of GDP? That is where we finished up.
Damian McBride: No.
Q553 Chair: But it happened.
Damian McBride: At no point would there ever have been a discussion in terms of: "Right, this is what the fiveyear plan is. We’re going to end up here in terms of proportions of GDP on spending or tax."
Q554 Chair: There were not discussions like that?
Damian McBride: No.
Q555 Chair: Isn’t that absolutely damning? Look at where we are now. Even Ed Balls must now be thinking, "We’ve got to get public spending as a share of GDP down to suchandsuch over the long term, otherwise we cannot get control of the deficit." Is the problem with your mediadriven grid system in fact that you neglect these big-picture issues?
Damian McBride: It is difficult for me to say because I was coming at it from the media point of view. Almost certainly, when Gordon Brown sat down with Lord O’Donnell, Nick Macpherson or any of those people and the macroeconomic finance team, there would have been those big-picture decisions. What I would say is that, if you look at some of the big decisions that were taken, they were taken for strategic reasons: the decision to use the mobile phone proceeds purely to pay down the debt; the decision to have a major public debate, rather than do it by stealth, on whether to raise National Insurance to pay for the stepchange increase in NHS funding. Those were big decisions that were all done in public and they were done for strategic reasons. For example, the NHS one was a very explicit decision that we would have a big increase in the proportion of our spending that goes on the NHS, which would come from a large increase in the amount of National Insurance being paid.
Q556 Chair: I do not necessarily want to blow my own trumpet, but if even I could make a speech in 2005 pointing out that public spending growth was completely out of control and was completely unsustainable, as I did, it must have been a conversation that was going on in the Treasury that did not filter through to you.
Damian McBride: Put it the other way: was I getting phone calls every single day from journalists?
Chair: No, but that is the point, isn’t it?
Damian McBride: To the extent that that was my responsibility, I was not rushing into Gordon Brown saying, "We’ve got a big problem. The FT is going to campaign on this for the next month" or "The Daily Mail is going to put it on its front page for the next three days." That just was not what was happening.
Q557 Mr Reed: I think we should move on to the time when you were a civil servant. At that point, before you were a special adviser, did you find the requirement to be politically impartial impeded your ability to serve the Chancellor at the time?
Damian McBride: The answer to that is probably: not as much as it should have done. I think that is the honest answer. I was not one of those to stand on ceremony. I was very clear about what I could do and I could not do in terms of responsibilities and messages that I could deliver. Occasionally I was told, "Come down to the TUC conference because you will have to deal with the economic announcement that he is making," and I had to insist, "I can’t come down to the TUC because he’s making a speech there in a political capacity." I was very clear about what I could and could not do. What I did not do was stand on ceremony when it came to having conversations with journalists about what the politics of a particular measure were. That is where the boundaries were a bit blurred, and I was not one of those who demanded people stopped talking while they walked out of the room because the next question was, "And what are we going to do for Treasury questions next week?" It was one of those things.
Q558 Mr Reed: So in fact you did not allow it to impede you.
Damian McBride: No, I did not. As I say, though, there are probably people within the Treasury who might have been uncomfortable with that. It was never said to me at the time, but Lord O’Donnell has said in retrospect that he was uncomfortable with me straying beyond those boundaries.
Q559 Mr Reed: Obviously the fix was to move you into a political position. Do you think we should move towards a more politicised Civil Service as another means of dealing with that problem?
Damian McBride: No, I certainly do not. I have never seen the attraction in that. The great benefit of the system is that people are able to adjust from one administration to another. One of the finest and probably most underrated civil servants of the last 10 years has been Michael Ellam, who has gone from a Foreign Office job under a Conservative administration to working in Kenneth Clarke’s private office very successfully, to working seamlessly for Gordon Brown, becoming Gordon Brown’s spokesman, and he is now a vital adviser to the current Chancellor on European issues and helping to solve the euro crisis. The idea that someone like that could not work in some of those senior positions because he is not a political appointee seems daft to me.
Q560 Mr Reed: So you find that the current balance is the right settlement.
Damian McBride: Yes, I think that is right. I certainly would like someone to point me to specific problems where it is causing issues. You hear about individual Departments where there is a sense that, "Well, that Department was politicised." That is the wrong way of looking at it. There are lots of Departments that have huge amounts of loyalty and have huge amounts of admiration for individual Ministers.
I know many people who worked in the Department for Education under Ed Balls, and there was a clear sense with the new administration coming into that Department that they had to clean house and there were too many people who were too close to Ed Balls. But it was not because of political affiliation. Those people would have been quite happy to work under a Conservative administration; it was just that they admired the person they had previously been working for and, to some extent, resented things like being told that they had a meditation room in their basement when they knew it was a four-by-four room that had just been set aside for Muslims who wanted to pray during the day. Administrations can build up a bit of animosity in advance of takeovers by being seen to unfairly criticise the civil servants who work there or the working arrangements in a Department.
Q561 Robert Halfon: Should this administration have more political special advisers, even though you respect the settlement that you described?
Damian McBride: They have to ask themselves the question: what is lacking or missing at the moment? If, as we discussed earlier, they do not have sufficient numbers of people or the right sorts of skills in those people to plough through the amount of work that you need to do to get into the detail of the work and avoid some of the problems that come down the pipe, then, yes, they do need people to do that. But I am not sure whether they see that as the problem or whether they just see it as a shortterm blip or midterm blues.
Q562 Lindsay Roy: This Government too said they were on the side of enterprise, and yet the current Prime Minister has said that civil servants are enemies of enterprise and risk averse. Was that your experience?
Damian McBride: I see them as two different things. Civil servants are risk averse for a reason. An example I gave yesterday was that, for reasons that are essentially political but make perfect sense from a governmental point of view, special advisers and Ministers were asking us to find a change to the VAT rules to allow museums to continue not charging for admission. Our reaction at the time was, "We are perfectly happy to try to do this, but you have to realise the risk that you take by opening up a debate with Europe about us playing fast and loose with the VAT rules." If they say that is the straw that broke the camel’s back and they are going to have a wideranging inquiry into all our VAT reliefs, then we could find that, just as a consequence of doing this, we have lost all our VAT zero rates. If you as a civil servant are not making that argument to Ministers and not warning them, you are not doing your job.
Ministers probably find it frustrating-particularly new people coming into Government for the first time-that they have gone from having think-tanks or their own advisers providing them with, "Here’s this great idea. Why don’t you do this?" to having civil servants who spend 20 of 30 pages telling them, "These are the reasons why you might not want to do this." I am not sure that is a bad thing; I think that is telling Ministers everything they need to know before taking a sensible decision. Are they enemies of enterprise? No, I never saw that, but I think you sometimes need to explain to civil servants what it is they are doing, or what the regulations are that they are responsible for that are holding business back. I am not sure there is that awareness.
Q563 Lindsay Roy: We have heard about ministerial concerns about competence and skills issues in the Civil Service. Were you aware of such issues at that time, and in particular which key skills were required to be developed?
Damian McBride: All I would say, with the benefit of a great deal of hindsight, is that the very fact that I came straight out of university and within three months was in charge of policy on the smuggling of cigarettes into this country is ridiculous. As good as I was at that job-and I was good at it, and I wrote a big strategy paper that ended up being-
Lindsay Roy: Did you manage?
Damian McBride: Yes, it was fine. Nevertheless, it is crazy that we do things that way. Fine, throw people in at the deep end, but in some ways that was lucky because that was a policy area that needed a good bit of analysis and then submissions to Ministers. That was fairly straightforward. If I had been put into a sensitive public spending area in a Department that had responsibility for contracts on something or big judgments about which potential supplier to go with on something, and I am doing that two or three months out of university, that really is dangerous. Then you are talking about huge potential waste of public money.
Q564 Lindsay Roy: Even within the service at present, though, we have heard, for example, that there needs to be development of project management skills and commercial skills. Are these the kinds of things that were discussed?
Damian McBride: Project management to some extent. There was definitely a sense that, because of the lack of project management skills, you had to bring in very expensive consultants to do these things for you. I used to look at what some of these consultants were doing and think, "I could do that," but because I could not demonstrate that I could do that, you were forced to spend money on that kind of expertise. In much the same way as in the Foreign Office-before someone gets deployed to an overseas embassy, they spend six months inside Whitehall learning the languages, the culture and all that sort of thing-I do not see why there is not a process of, rather than throwing people in at the deep end, taking them away and say, "These are the skills that you need to do this job."
Q565 Lindsay Roy: Is there a coherent professional development programme?
Damian McBride: All of that tends to be done on the job and, as I say, because there is a tendency to throw people in at the deep end and expect them to swim straight away, I think we could do with following that Foreign Office model and say, "Let’s take you out and do that." The secret services would not send someone abroad as a spy within two months of coming into the job, so why do we think people can do that in the Home Civil Service?
Q566 Lindsay Roy: Is there a holistic overview of professional development or is it very much focussed on the individual?
Damian McBride: It is done by line managers with, in my experience, very little support from the human resources department. It is done by line managers with their staff, and the danger is that in very busy organisations you make training a bit of a joke: "We’d love to do training if only we had the time." You laugh at other units in the organisation that have time to go on training courses: "If only they had to do our jobs, they would never be able to do that." Ultimately, I think that is quite a destructive way of looking at it.
Q567 Lindsay Roy: So overall it is not strategic?
Damian McBride: No. It is certainly not planned, and not planned on an individual basis about what the individual needs to develop.
Q568 Lindsay Roy: Have you any indication it is more strategic now?
Damian McBride: No, but I was glad to be out of line management in the Civil Service in 2005. That is quite historical.
Q569 Kelvin Hopkins: I have one little point first of all. There are some very successful economies that have run with public spending well over 50%, so I would take issue with the Chairman on that. They are mostly in Scandinavia. I have been very interested in listening to what you have had to say. You are a very different character from some of your predecessors. Alistair Campbell was a political thug who spent his time trying to get the media under control.
Paul Flynn: That is unfair to thugs.
Kelvin Hopkins: I think that is fair. Steve Hilton was an impatient rightwing ideologue who had contempt for the Civil Service and eventually left. You are much more thoughtful, though, and have a degree of respect for the Civil Service, which is interesting.
Francis Maude has spoken of Ministers in both current and previous Governments experiencing their decisions being blocked by civil servants. You have touched on this, but was this a serious problem you witnessed when you worked in Number 10 or the Treasury? On technical things you have said they blocked because the Minister should not have got involved, it was micromanaging and all that, but are there serious political decisions that were blocked and which frustrated Ministers?
Damian McBride: I never saw that. I never saw a Minister take a decision and be told, "No, you can’t," unless it was illegal. Frequently Ministers needed to be told that things were illegal, particularly where European law was concerned. Reflecting on it, I would say a bigger danger is where Ministers feel that they cannot trust the advice they are getting from civil servants because civil servants are working to a slightly different agenda. What went in parallel with the scorecard process in the Budget was that you almost had the fiscal scorecard alongside that. The scorecard was all the measures that were going to be announced in the Budget; the fiscal scorecard was all the projections for unemployment and everything else.
Inevitably that was a bit of what I would call a negotiation between civil servants and Ministers, but it worked in two ways. Lots of people would say, "Well, that’s Ministers putting pressure on civil servants to improve the figures," but it was not. It was recognising that the Civil Service starts deliberately trying to build as much slack into the system to deliberately make the numbers look worse than they are, so that when Ministers want to do big things in the Budget they can come down to a more realistic position and say, "Actually, that’s okay."
It was very Yes Ministeresque, in that you would have these meetings and you would say to Graham Parker, who was the Head of Forecasting at the time and now works for the OBR, "Come on, Graham; what have you got in your back pocket?" and he would say, "You’ll never get a look in my back pocket until two weeks before the Budget." There was a very clear sense that you did this together and you ended up in equilibrium; you ended up in the right place.
The most serious thing, just because it was fundamental to both what was happening politically and how we were managing the economy at the time, was that in the latter period-2008 to 2010-there was a sense that the Treasury was taking the hard-line view that unemployment was going to be higher than it actually turned out to be and the deficit was going to be higher than it turned out to be, and they would stick to that. They would stick to that position because what they were trying to build in was not slack for the current Government, in terms of being able to do what it wanted to with the Budget, but slack for the Government that was to come. They had already taken the decision that, if there were to be a change of Government, they wanted to make life easier for them, not harder.
For example, there was very tough pressure put on Alistair Darling and Treasury Ministers to raise VAT before the election or to commit that, if we were going to have a temporary reduction in VAT, we would go up to a higher level when we went back, and go up to 20%. There was a clear sense-right or wrong-amongst the political classes or Ministers that they were doing that because they were trying to save George Osborne a difficult decision when he became Chancellor.
You might argue that was the right thing to do because they were recognising that that was what you needed to do to get the deficit down for the long term. Nevertheless, that breakdown of trust was quite corrosive. We were being given advice not based on what the right thing was for us to be doing or what was sensible for the economy at the time, but based on trying to make life easier for the future Government. It came down to very basic things like projections of unemployment that were much higher than what they turned out to be and projections of the deficit that turned out to be much higher.
Q570 Kelvin Hopkins: That was really protecting their backs when the new Government came in, rather than saying, "We’re going to help the Conservatives because we lean that way."
Damian McBride: Exactly. If you are working on that fiscal side of the Treasury, you are trying to avoid the problem in four or five years’ time. You would always rather make a big decision sooner so that it makes things slightly easier down the pipe, not least because it is perfectly legitimate to think that by putting off those decisions you make the eventual decision even harder.
Q571 Kelvin Hopkins: The FDA has said in its supplementary evidence to us that good Ministers welcome robust, evidencebased challenge whilst retaining the ultimate power to make decisions on policy. We have always argued that civil servants sometimes have to speak truth unto power and say, "Minister, this is not possible." That is not blocking policy; that is just saying, "You have to be realistic: We can’t afford it"; "The Americans wouldn’t like it"; or whatever. Is that your experience?
Damian McBride: Yes. I suppose the problem is that, because civil servants get so used over time to having to deliver those hard truths or pointing out the risks, if that is their starting point in every conversation, it can be quite wearing for Ministers after a while: "The first thing this guy always says to me is ‘No, and these are the reasons why not,’ before we can have a sensible discussion about why not or what the options are." The thing that good civil servants learn over time is that you do not do it that way. You say, "That’s very good and that’s very interesting. Let’s work out the options and come back to you," and that is the point at which you lay out the risks rather than knocking down ideas before they have had a chance to be considered. In particular, civil servants have a very bad habit of saying to Ministers, "Well, we looked at that 10 years ago and we decided not to do it." That is the worst possible reason to say no to something: because of what might have happened over 10 years ago.
Q572 Kelvin Hopkins: Just to come back to Francis Maude, he has been very public about this. He has not given any examples of where he has been blocked, but he is absolutely definite he has been blocked. Have you any intimation as to what he is talking about and what examples there might be inside the present Government? What are Francis Maude and other Ministers being blocked about?
Damian McBride: The only thing I have picked up, just because it has been around so long without anything coming to fruition on it, is this whole agenda about devolving whole responsibilities to local government. You would take some responsibility and spending that currently sits with the Department for Education and say, "We’re going to devolve that to individual local authorities across the country on the proviso that they open things up to local competition and to private providers. That is an easier thing to do at a local level rather than administer it from a central Department." Education might be a bad example, but that has been the agenda. That has been knocking around almost since day one of the Administration as one of the big plans, and the fact that has not come to fruition may mean that has been something they feel stifled about. There may be very good reasons for that. We mess around with the spending arrangements between local and central Government at our peril just because of all the implications for tax and everything else. I would say that coming from a tax background.
Q573 Kelvin Hopkins: I have made the point in several sessions that my impression is that the Civil Service has greater difficulty living with Governments now because Governments have moved towards a neoliberal view of devolving, moving things away from the state, privatising and effectively asking the Civil Service to give up areas that the Government has normally covered in the past. They are uncomfortable with this. In the past the Civil Service would hover between social democracy and one-nation conservatism, but actually the role of the State was not seriously challenged. Now it is being seriously challenged by ideologues like Steve Hilton, the Conservatives and indeed like New Labour, and they feel very uncomfortable with this. It may be that we are moving away from it a bit now, but do you think that is a fair summary of what has happened over the last 20 to 30 years?
Damian McBride: It would certainly be an explanation for some of the trenches that the Civil Service has dug on particular issues. The only time I really came face to face with an absolutely entrenched Civil Service position on something was in looking at the issue of awarding posthumous honours. It really brought me face to face with what happens when the Civil Service decides, "No, you absolutely cannot do this. We will stop you and we will throw everything at you." Ultimately what they said was, "Well, if the Prime Minister feels strongly about this, he will need to take it up with Her Majesty the Queen. We’ve already spoken to her about it. We know her view."
Q574 Kelvin Hopkins: To be fair, that may be a view, but it is not going to damage the economy if we have posthumous honours.
Damian McBride: No, but I am pointing out that it can happen. In my experience it can happen when the civil servants decide, "No, we absolutely fundamentally disagree with this. We’ll dig a trench and stop you passing."
Q575 Kelvin Hopkins: Except sometimes they are right. One final question. I meet civil servants on the train. I do not ask their names because they tell me all sorts of interesting things. I spoke to a senior civil servant about evidencebased policy, and he said, "Well, yes. I come up with evidencebased policy, but if it goes to people up there and they don’t like the policy, they say, ‘Get rid of the evidence.’" When you have an ideologically driven agenda that is what happens. Would these ideologically driven people have been some of the politicians in the Blair regime? Would they have been the special advisers? Would they have been the civil servants?
Damian McBride: In some ways it is politicians full stop, and it is trying to get to that equilibrium where you allow the evidence to drive your policy. If you are a good Minister and you have a great idea, but you send it away to be analysed by the civil servants and they come back and say it is absolutely not going to work and, in fact, it will do the opposite of what you think, you would be very foolish if you pressed on ahead with it. There are lots of examples of that.
Equally, civil servants need to have times when they recognise political realities. A very brief example-when I was responsible for the road tax system we had to design four bands for new vehicles based on their carbon emissions. The day that I put my submission up to a great Treasury Minister, someone that you would all hold in huge respect, we received a letter from Ford saying, "By the way, we understand that you’re doing this work on this thing. Whatever you do, don’t set the band at this level, because we won’t go ahead with the new fleet of cars we were planning to build in Dagenham if you do"-not Dagenham; it was one of the other plants.
I, as a civil servant, thought the Minister was in an incredibly uncomfortable position, because he had received my advice based on the evidence, but he had also received this thing telling him politically this will be a disaster, because you would lose thousands of jobs as a result. My reaction to that as a civil servant was to go and ask the office if I could have my submission back because I had made a mistake. I went and looked at the analysis, and I took it to my boss and said, "Actually, having looked at this, I’ve decided this," and my boss looked at me, having read the letter from Ford, and gave me a little wink and said, "That sounds very sensible to me." We put it back to the Minister, and the Minister was never put in that uncomfortable position, because we were reflecting the political realities that were there.
Some civil servants might look at that and say that was totally the wrong thing to do, but you are not living in the real world if you do not try to make Ministers’ lives easier by sometimes adjusting things slightly in light of political realities.
Kelvin Hopkins: Straight out of Yes Minister.
Q576 Chair: A nice anecdote. I should declare an interest: I used to work for Ford.
Paul Flynn: Did you work as a lobbyist?
Chair: No, I was never in lobbying. It is the kind of letter and pressure on Government that I am familiar with from that company. I hope you tested their assumptions. You have been extremely helpful. I think what Francis Maude is talking about is not being challenged or confronted by officials. It is feeling that decisions have been made and then months later finding out that nothing has happened. It probably did not happen very often in the Treasury, but in other Government Departments there is a lot of experience of that kind of inertia. As we have heard from one of our witnesses, people in failing organisations tend to attend meetings, not speak, watch an agreement being reached and then go out of the meeting and say something else. Did you have much experience of that?
Damian McBride: I had experience of people leaving meetings like that and going straight to their Minister and saying, "You should write a letter explaining why this won’t happen," rather than sitting around the table and having an open dialogue about what the potential problems were.
Q577 Chair: Why does this lack of openness exist in the Civil Service?
Damian McBride: It is partly due to what you said there about some Departments not feeling they are able to make their voice heard sufficiently. They immediately resort to ministerial letters, rather than trying to sort things out around the table. If you come from the Department for Transport and you are being told by the Treasury and Number 10, "We want this to happen," do you sit there and think, "I’m going to make myself the unpopular person in the room by saying, ‘For administrative reasons, we can’t’"?
Q578 Chair: Actually, if you have to say that, that is a helpful thing for you to say, isn’t it?
Damian McBride: Yes.
Q579 Chair: Why is that so contrary to the Whitehall culture? In the armed forces you would get demoted if you did not raise objections at meetings that were legitimate, because they train people to make sure that decisions are made properly.
Damian McBride: You are told right at the outset that that is what you are expected to do, and I am not sure there is sufficient training of people so that you can hold your own against the Departments who, around the tables, will roll their eyes when you say, "We can’t do that for administrative reasons."
Q580 Chair: If your Minister is chairing that meeting and is not hungry for that kind of challenge, he will not get it, will he?
Damian McBride: No. Yes, Ministers need to say, "You need to hold your own. I shouldn’t have to write these letters. Why didn’t you raise this in the meeting? Why don’t you go back to the Treasury and explain that?"
Q581 Chair: Finally, can I just ask one general question? Our Inquiry is entitled "The Future of the Civil Service". As you look at the Civil Service, do you think the future is going to challenge the existing Civil Service or does the existing Civil Service just need to be made better? We are in a very different world from even just 30 years ago.
Damian McBride: The biggest conclusion I have come to with the benefit of some outside perspective is that the Civil Service needs to open up, but not in the way it tells itself it needs to open up. That is clearly important. If you were talking to Jeremy Heywood, he would say, "I have an agenda to ensure that we are more representative of the population-more minority ethnic representation, more women in high positions." That is all very sensible, but you are still talking about graduates with 2:1 degrees for the most part. You are still talking about people who will have to get through the Civil Service Fast Stream programme.
You are talking about taking people who have already been sieved through the university process, lots of them to get into Oxbridge, who are then having to go through a further process of refinement to get through the Civil Service Fast Stream process, some of whom then get selected for the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Home Office or Number 10, and it is those people who will rise to the top of the tree. That process of refinement has historically produced some exceptional people in those top positions, but it also makes them all the same type of person. They end up selecting themselves time after time after time. Jeremy Heywood should be saying, "What are we missing that’s out there?" When he goes to spend time in businesses and talks to people, he should ask them, "How did you get recruited?" Lots of them will tell him. Banking traders will say, "I came in here when I was 16 to work on the floor, and I’ve worked my way up and now I’m running Global Marketing," and that kind of thing. He has to be in a position to say, "What am I missing?" because we are not tapping into that 98% of the population.
Q582 Chair: So what you are saying is that the modern Civil Service needs a far more diverse range of skills-not of types of people, but of skills and life experience.
Damian McBride: Skills and backgrounds and that kind of thing. Cutting yourself off from that vast majority of people-at the organisation I work for now, CAFOD, I have never heard a social conversation start with anyone saying, "What university did you go to?" because the assumption is that around the table there will be people who have worked their way up from the VSO on programmes in Africa and have then come into the team there. There are people who have left school at 18, done a variety of jobs and then come in to work in the media team. These are exceptional people who would not be looked at in the Civil Service. Their letter would not get to the line manager, because the HR process would weed them out. That is recognised as an issue in Parliament more generally-"How do we make MPs more diverse?"-but at least that is something that political parties can do something about. The Civil Service binds itself in rules whereby every single recruitment process says you must have a 2:1 degree or equivalent.
Q583 Chair: Are you saying that concentrating on promoting women and BMEs from within the 2:1 graduate Fast Stream pool is actually not going to provide the diversity that the Civil Service needs.
Damian McBride: No, and it is the wrong definition of fresh blood. If you are telling yourself that, just by having women or more BME candidates, you are bringing in fresh thinking or fresh blood, that’s nonsense. Of course it is not. It is just having a wider, more diverse group of people. If you want fresh thinking, you have to go out to the 98% of the population that has not come through that filter.
Chair: That is a very interesting final contribution. Thank you very much indeed. You have been extremely interesting and thank you very much for giving evidence this morning.
Damian McBride: Thanks very much for inviting me.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive, Local Government Association, and Derrick Anderson, Chief Executive, Lambeth Council, gave evidence.
Q584 Chair: Good morning and welcome to this second session this morning on the future of the Civil Service. I apologise that our last session rather overran. That is going to squeeze us a little bit, so we will be as brisk as we can. Please could you identify yourselves for the record?
Carolyn Downs: I am Carolyn Downs and I am Chief Executive of the Local Government Association.
Derrick Anderson: I am Derrick Anderson, Chief Executive, Head of Paid Service, for the London Borough of Lambeth Council.
Chair: I should declare an interest. I am a resident of Lambeth and very happy with the much cleaner streets that we have as a result of your hard work. Thank you for that. Steve, you are going to start off.
Q585 Mr Reed: We will start by putting that in a leaflet. Could I place on the record as well, please, the fact that our paths have cross previously? I was leader of the Council until December in Lambeth, where Derrick is the Chief Executive, and I was Deputy Chair of the Local Government Association, where Carolyn is the Chief Executive. Thank you both for coming. I wanted to start with a very broad question. How well does the relationship between local and central Government work?
Carolyn Downs: It is a relationship that could improve, without a doubt, as a starting point. It is a relationship that in every way is variable and patchy. The relationship can work extremely well on certain specific issues. I would give as examples of that at the moment troubled families, where the relationship between the team in DCLG working on that and the involvement of local government has worked really well, and the relationship on the reform of the health agenda, where the Department of Health has included local government politicians, chief executives and directors in that reform programme. A lot of the policy has felt codesigned as opposed to imposed. In those instances it works well.
Nevertheless, it is definitely a childparent relationship, where the parent is the Civil Service and the child is local government. That is how we experience it and how we feel it. I think that makes policy all the poorer as a result.
Derrick Anderson: I would echo many of those points. I would go a bit further in saying that it works well where we are addressing new problems or where no party appears to have the answer at the outset of the discourse, so on things like tackling crime, guns, gangs and those sorts of areas, where there is not a local response, there needs to be learning drawn across the piece and it is not impacting directly on any single bit of Government. Where it works with more tension is where there is a real debate about who should be doing what at the local level, where at the national level there are either fixed views or there is sort of a history of control. From listening to the previous conversation, ceding that control and getting to a place where you can have sensible debates about ceding control to the locality, because that is the best way in which things are done, has been a real challenge.
Q586 Mr Reed: In terms of the parentchild relationship or where there is inappropriate central control, how do we look to correct that in looking at the future of the Civil Service? What should we be looking at?
Carolyn Downs: If you look at the Reform Plan that was put out and the whole issue of open policymaking, I think that is something really positive within the reform plan. The development of community budgets work and Whole Place budgeting has been done entirely on the basis of open policymaking, where civil servants are sitting alongside and in councils with local partners across the whole of the public sector. They are working in a place understanding the practical implications of the delivery of their policies. That does lead to respect, understanding, codesign, coproduction, and that works really well. That part of the Civil Service Reform Plan is really positive.
Derrick Anderson: For my part I think there has to be much stronger political lead in terms of some of these localism and devolution debates. Alongside that, again picking up on a point from the last speaker, there has to be a stronger exchange of people from central to local government. My experience is that I get a lot of people coming to talk to me who have no understanding of what the relationship is. In fact, there are often occasions when I have to remind them that local government is not a subdepartment of Government. Actually, I have a whole series of stakeholders locally, including political leadership, that I have to take guidance and direction for. Critically, too, they have no sense of what really happens when it comes to making things happen on the ground.
In my time as a nonexecutive at the Home Office, as we used to work through policy and strategy changes, the constant question I asked was, "Okay, that’s all very interesting. How do you think that is going to happen in Heath Town in Wolverhampton?" Nobody could actually tell me, because nobody had the experience of actually taking some of these ideas and making them work on the ground. I think Damian’s notion that there should be more and broader experiences and voices in the debate at the frontend as policy and strategy is being formed is absolutely what is required.
Carolyn Downs: Just on that point, I was a senior civil servant; I was deputy Permanent Secretary and Director General at the Ministry of Justice, and I went into that role having been in local government for 27 years, having worked all my way up. I did get a 2:1, but it was not from Oxbridge. Having started off on a library counter in local government, the lowest grade possible, and working my way up to being a Council Chief Executive, which I had been for nearly six years at the point of appointment, I think I would have enjoyed my experience in the Civil Service much more and would have felt able to get things done differently if I had had an earlier entry and people had switched in and out between the two sectors so you get a proper exchange of skills and experiences throughout the process.
Q587 Mr Reed: If I could just turn quickly to the Civil Service Reform Plan, is that sufficiently transformative and does it properly reflect the interactions between local authorities and Whitehall?
Carolyn Downs: I actually think it is written almost in the absence of the wider public sector, and the other thing I would say, having listened to the previous debate, is it talks about reforming the Civil Service, but what everyone talks about is Whitehall. The overwhelming majority of civil servants do not work in Whitehall; they work out and about in local communities. I felt the document was actually very much about the transformation in the form of Whitehall as opposed to the wider Civil Service. I do think all of that needs to be done in the wider context of the transformation of public services, because the Civil Service on its own cannot achieve its wider agenda without working across the public service.
Q588 Mr Reed: Could you give us an example of something that would be missing? It strengthens our Report if we put examples in.
Carolyn Downs: That is a difficult question.
Derrick Anderson: Can I come in there? I think you are absolutely right. The proposals here concentrate very much on Whitehall, but if you look at what the nature of the problem is, it is: how do you get from politics and policy at one end to delivery and making things happen on the ground at the other? To try to reform a system that has a huge tail of operations, a chunk somewhere in there about advising, forming and shaping policy, and then programmes that spin out of that, in the absence also of looking at what else connects into that-whether it is local government, the health service and all those other things at the local level-is just not productive. In any event, if you tried to transform that infrastructure, you would not do it in four years or five years. You are talking about a 10- to 15year journey.
Part of the answer is to have a sensible conversation about what Whitehall can do, and should be doing. Some of that has started with the localism conversation, but has not translated itself into some of the delivery stuff, going down to the right place within the right time. It really cannot be looked at in isolation. You have to look at the reform of Whitehall in the wider context, as you say, of the whole of the public service, or else it is doomed to fail.
Carolyn Downs: One of the biggest differences between being a civil servant, particularly a senior civil servant, and being a local authority officer is the whole accountability structure within the two systems. As a senior officer, you are appointed politically, which is done on a crossparty basis, and you are accountable to the whole council rather than just the serving administration. I think that creates an entirely different dynamic.
Listening to Damian McBride about some of the discussions that take place between civil servants, Ministers, and SpAds, etc., and the nature of those discussions, in my experience those discussions are more transparent in the local authority environment; the advice that a chief executive gives to their politicians is given in public, and the chief executive can be held to account in public for the advice they have given. That creates an entirely different dynamic, which results in a much more collaborative leadership style between politicians and officials, which helps transformation and helps reform
Mr Reed: Thank you. I think we will be picking up on that later on this morning.
Derrick Anderson: The other dimension, for me, is rooted in this relationship. I hear what you are saying about the public dimension to the relationship. The reality is that different chief executives work in different ways, but the relationship is strongest where there is openness, trust, and clarity about what it is you are trying to achieve. The role of the chief executive is then not just to advise about what cannot happen but also to talk about the art of the possible, and to provide suitable alternatives. If the relationship is built, and that relationship is codified at the start of the process, then I think it bodes well.
For me in there, in the leadership section, there is something about getting to a point earlier in the process where that relationship is codified and there is some real clarity about what the expectations of both parties are. If they cannot reach some common understanding of that, then it is not going to work. There has to be a mechanism by which you either part company or change the arrangements.
Q589 Mr Reed: May I just ask, Derrick, so that we get a sense of the daytoday interface, how much contact would you or Lambeth have with different central Government Departments over a week? Is that appropriate?
Derrick Anderson: I have considerable contact across the organisation. Most of it is about issuing guidance. It will be what I am being told should happen, which I then look at and determine whether or not it accords with the priorities that my local political masters have instructed me to pursue. What I do not get is any sense of engagement on a regular basis, either in terms of problemsolving or thinking through how some stuff might happen at the local level.
Q590 Mr Reed: So it is not contact that in general you welcome or feel is as positive as it could be?
Derrick Anderson: No. It comes in the ether, and I treat it in that way, largely, I have to say.
Q591 Mr Reed: Is that a view across local government, do you feel, Carolyn?
Carolyn Downs: Absolutely.
Q592 Chair: So it is not exactly a twoway street.
Carolyn Downs: No. Not at all.
Q593 Chair: How much of that is because the mindset of so many senior local government officers is that that is the way it is, and that is the way it should be? I recall an account of a meeting of county council chief executives who were asked by an official to prepare some thoughts on a new initiative. The chief executive of one county council asked, "How many words should there be in this document?" which rather suggests that a lot of local authority chief executives are still waiting to be told what to do.
Carolyn Downs: Good heavens. It must have been a different set of county council chief executives from when I was one of the members of their association. I certainly would not have said, "How many words would you like in the document?" I accept your point, however. The relationship is, to a certain extent, what the relationship is, and you can allow yourself almost to become a victim if you are not careful. I am very clear, and I must admit one of the things I found surprising was that, when I was a local authority Chief Executive and I was fed up with something that was coming from Whitehall, if I picked up the phone to have the conversation, a civil servant would always, always make the time to have that conversation with you. I do not know whether it made a huge amount of difference, but the willingness to engage was there.
Derrick Anderson: I have been around a long time, and I remember various Departments with different names that have looked after local government. The thing that has changed for me the most is that, in the earlier days, when there was an issue to be explored and discussed, you could go from local government almost straight through to a Minister, and have a conversation.
Carolyn Downs: That is true.
Derrick Anderson: Nowadays, it would probably take six months to set up that conversation.
Carolyn Downs: Yes.
Derrick Anderson: The interface would be with several intermediaries telling you what is permissible in the conversation and what is not. In the reform, that line that talks about good collaborative relationships, having faster and more direct connections in terms of policymaking and policy checking-the direct access to Ministers-I very much welcome.
Q594 Chair: How many Ministers do you have on your mobile phone? How many Ministers’ mobile phone numbers do you have, or how many personal emails do you have of Ministers?
Derrick Anderson: These days I try to cultivate permanent secretaries.
Q595 Chair: You think they are more powerful than Ministers?
Derrick Anderson: No, but at least I cut out the other chains of civil servants.
Carolyn Downs: On that point Derrick has raised, which relates to what Damian McBride said, one of the issues as a council chief executive is that you do not half have to deal with some junior civil servants, who are lacking in considerable experience of the issues you are facing on a daily basis. That creates a totally unequal relationship, and it devalues the conversation. As Derrick says, even in my role now I work on the basis-and it sounds terrible-that I will go in at that level and no lower.
Q596 Chair: That is very understandable; I think MPs feel the same.
Carolyn Downs: Do they? Okay.
Chair: Except that we are rarely allowed to talk to officials.
Derrick Anderson: On the point about the chief executives who wait to be told what is happening, I think I understand the point you are making, because there was a decade or so where, through various policy reforms, etc., essentially there was nothing to do other than react to what you were told, but certainly not in recent times. In recent times, as the focus has moved towards achieving outcomes, with stronger performance management and all the rest of it, certainly within the Met field-I cannot speak for the counties, because I have never really worked in the counties-there has been much stronger dialogue between senior politicians and chief officers around what needs to be done and when it needs to be done, and how it could be done.
I would not want anybody to be left with the impression that the majority of us just sit there and wait to be told, and the reason why nothing happens in the relationship with central Government is because we cannot be bothered to do it.
Chair: Glad to hear it. We like a bit of insurrection.
Q597 Kelvin Hopkins: The Civil Service Reform Plan stated that the Government’s intention was to transfer power and control away from Whitehall, devolving power as far as possible to those actually using the service at local level. I have deep scepticism about this, by the way, but is this happening in practice?
Chair: A deep sigh-I will just report that for the record.
Carolyn Downs: Thank you. I would say that, where localism is actually happening at the moment, it is coming with a pretty strong prescription of how it should be done.
Mr Reed: That is not localism.
Paul Flynn: Centralised localism.
Carolyn Downs: It is, indeed, very centralised localism.
Q598 Kelvin Hopkins: I must say that, when I was a student at university, many, many years ago, we looked at what was then the Soviet constitution, which had these elaborate structures, but power actually resided in Stalin’s office and nowhere else.
Carolyn Downs: One example of that is council tax and setting of council tax. That is an issue that Governments of all political complexions have had anxieties around, but at the moment the constraints within which local politicians can make that decision are very narrow indeed. It is a devolved decision, but the policy framework within which it is set is such that the decision is effectively made in Whitehall.
Q599 Kelvin Hopkins: I am very suspicious of this phrase "to those actually using the service". It implies not local authorities, but people who are-
Carolyn Downs: I think that is a deliberate intention.
Q600 Kelvin Hopkins: If I go back to the Blair Government, they set up community development projects for example, which were attempts to spend money, deliberately cutting out local government. We had one in my constituency, and it was semimanaged by the regional office of Government, semimanaged by local government, but the money went to a community, £50 million over 10 years. It was an attempt to avoid local authorities rather than give powers to them. Is that right?
Derrick Anderson: I think that is absolutely right, but in fairness, the localism agenda has never said, "Give power to local authorities."
Kelvin Hopkins: Indeed, indeed. You have made the point for me.
Derrick Anderson: There is a problem there, because what I am seeing on the ground is lots of entities pop up. I am seeing programmes like the Work Programme, etc., manifesting themselves, with new bodies connecting with voluntary organisations, private sector organisations, etc., around discrete areas. Then, however, the co-ordination of that locality, the avoidance of duplication in that locality, and sustaining these things when people have come and gone are responsibilities for us in the local authority, and without the levers to ensure that they do not do either daft or duplicate things when they are there. I just think we are wasting or missing a real opportunity. If those things were worked with local government rather than worked through local government, I think you would get better impact on the ground for the resources we are putting into the localism agenda.
Q601 Kelvin Hopkins: I was a local authority member 40 years ago, and I have seen the change. I must say that we had a much greater degree of independence in what we decided locally, but we also had better funding. Since that time, particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and indeed through the 2000s, we have seen Governments taking control of local government finance and restricting access to finance. The business rate was centralised and had controls on rate levels and so on. Local control has gone. Is it not the case that central Government has increasingly shown its suspicion and lack of confidence in local government, and it does not want to be challenged by local government?
Carolyn Downs: I think you have put your finger on it. The Heseltine Review is overt in that comment with regard to the lack of trust that is given to local partners, whether it be the council, the private sector or the voluntary sector. He makes it very clear that that lack of trust from Whitehall to local areas is what is impeding growth, and I would absolutely agree with that point. I do think that fundamental issue of trust is a twoway issue as well. A lack of trust in the local authority breeds a lack of trust from the local authority to Whitehall. Much of what is intended might be very well intended, and the Government is actually trying to do things for precisely the right reasons, but that lack of trust creates a lack of willingness to engage, sometimes, as positively as perhaps should be the case.
Derrick Anderson: I see the lack of trust, but the more dangerous thing for me is the fear of loss of control. What has increasingly happened over time is, with the expectation to deliver quickly for Ministers or within a Department, there is a sense that, "I need to have a lever that has something on the end of it, rather than a rubber lever." Local authorities are understandably bodies that feel they have strengths of their own, voices of their own and directions of their own. To feed these things through this vehicle that is likely to push back and want to take away some of the direct sight into the outcome or the output against which I am being measured has led, I think, to people circumventing us and creating alternatives down there for delivery, rather than using a local authority as the delivery vehicle. I reflect on my experience of what were called local area agreements. They are actually local area assignments, because more often than not you were told, "This is it, and this is it, and this is it," and you dealt with it.
Mr Reed: By a junior civil servant.
Carolyn Downs: A very junior civil servant.
Derrick Anderson: You accepted the point, because at the end of the day, the real agenda was over here. That is just how it was. There is this issue about the lack of trust and the need to build trust, but some of that is because people are fearing that, without some kind of direct control in terms of performance management and the route back, somehow they would be seen to be failing if they could not control what happened on the other end. The preference has been, rather than to use what is there more appropriately, to set up new and alternative delivery vehicles.
Carolyn Downs: That comes back to that issue of risk aversion that you discussed previously with Damian McBride, and the fear of things going wrong. I absolutely agree with your point about the grid being in charge of policymaking, and the feeding of media stories as opposed to really fundamentally considering reform agendas and different ways of doing things. In every single walk of life something goes wrong. It is not perfect, and that stranglehold of control and risk aversion does actually take the life out of the reform agenda.
Q602 Kelvin Hopkins: The abolition of metropolitan counties and the abolition of the GLC were all about getting control back to the centre. Yet I think the research has shown that local authorities are very efficient deliverers of public services, and they are also locally and democratically accountable. Yet central Government has shown increasingly, over decades now since the 1970s, a lack of trust.
Carolyn Downs: What is fundamentally important is: whom do the public trust? 62% of the public trust their local authority. In a specific Ipsos MORI poll that was done in January this year, the question was asked, "Whom do you trust to make decisions about your local area and your local public services?" 79% said their council, 11% said national Government. I always felt as a local authority Chief Executive-I do not think the leader liked it when I used to say this-my number one accountability was to the public of the area I served. That closeness of accountability to the public really manifests itself in the way you perform your duties and you provide services.
Kelvin Hopkins: I have many more questions to ask, but thank you.
Q603 Chair: I would just point out that I think the abolition of the GLC was about the defeat of the extreme left, which made the Labour party electable, but there we are. I have an interest to declare there as well. The Civil Service Reform Plan is partly considering a more radical restructuring of Government, towards what they call a "single service", much more like a local authority. Of course this is very much in the DNA of the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake. Do you think this is a practical proposal for the whole of Whitehall?
Carolyn Downs: I think it is an admirable aspiration.
Q604 Chair: But mightn’t it confuse things? Don’t we need a federal structure in Whitehall, because Whitehall is so big?
Carolyn Downs: My view is no, you do not. My view is absolutely not. One of the things I was quite taken aback by when I worked in the Civil Service was what I saw as a lack of command and control. The managerial accountability that there is to the Head of the Civil Service or the Cabinet Secretary-
Q605 Chair: But this is a constitutional problem, isn’t it? Your Secretary of State is directly accountable to Parliament.
Carolyn Downs: Absolutely.
Chair: That is not a problem you have in local government, is it?
Carolyn Downs: Absolutely not, and it really makes a difference. You are completely accountable and responsible as a chief executive, working to politicians. As I think I said earlier, I have always worked in an environment where that was a shared dual leadership role. I have to say that local authority chief executives were much more managerial then permanent secretaries-very, very managerial. Your task is to do what your politicians ask you to do. Your task is absolutely to give advice, to say what is the art of the politically and practically possible, and affordable, but there is absolutely no question your job is to deliver quickly on behalf of politicians.
Derrick Anderson: I hold the view that we spend a lot of time having debates about structures, but it is actually relationships that get things done.
Q606 Chair: Is that a different view from Ms Downs?
Derrick Anderson: No, I am moving to this thing about the single system or single approach. The relationships you need need to be ones where people are absolutely clear about what really matters to the body corporate. An organisation that has lots of different arms and thinks everything is important will never be able to focus on the crucial things it needs to do.
Q607 Chair: What does that mean for Whitehall? Do we have a single service or do we maintain a federal structure?
Derrick Anderson: You need a single service, but you also need absolute clarity, politically, about what the single service is for over that period of time.
Carolyn Downs: Just on that point, I would take a slightly different view about that. I think having a single accountability structure is important. Councils have different departments-many different departments-and I was a County Council Chief Executive, which is a very large organisation, so you have different cultures in different parts of the organisation. I personally never thought there was a real problem with different cultures in different parts of the organisation, because there are different professional backgrounds and practices that create some of those cultures. What was fundamentally important was the adoption of a common set of values across the organisation, and the clarity of purpose within an overall strategic political direction of the council.
Q608 Chair: So it is not necessarily incompatible with separate Government Departments under separate secretaries of state trying to have more of a common ethos and more of a common sense of purpose?
Carolyn Downs: Yes, absolutely.
Derrick Anderson: It is common purpose, common values, and clarity about what you are collectively trying to do.
Q609 Chair: So it is strategic leadership from the Cabinet and Number 10 and the Cabinet Office?
Carolyn Downs: Absolutely, and more crosscutting work as well, so that they are not just working in silos. I would quote the troubled families work, again. I do not think it was easy for that to be set up in the way it was, but it is delivering. It is showing success across the country at the moment. That did bring different bits of Whitehall together through that top-slicing of monies into a pot, and the delivery programme that was run out of DCLG. That is a good example of how to do it. Community budgets I would see as another good example of crosscutting across Whitehall, working together for a single objective.
Q610 Paul Flynn: I would like to come in. I am very grateful for the evidence, and sorry that there was a stampede of national journalists when you came here. That probably says more about the fact that you have less exciting emails than perhaps our previous witness did. It is evidence of this place. I speak as another grateful resident of Lambeth, and someone who was on local authorities for about 15 years in the past. It is distressing to see how local authorities are used, particularly by this Government, as a scapegoat for so many errors. The loss of 230,000 jobs is an act of localism; austerity is concentrated locally. That is behind it.
Carolyn Downs: It is 314,000.
Q611 Paul Flynn: I will accept your correction, and cuts of 8% in the budget.
Carolyn Downs: 33%.
Q612 Paul Flynn: Oh dear. That is what it says here. This cannot go on, surely. Are you in a catch22: the more efficiently you deliver the cuts put on you, the more the Government will say, "Of course they were previously bloated and overstaffed"? How can you possibly deal with it?
Carolyn Downs: Good question. I was actually at the PAC earlier this week discussing the same issue. My view, and the Local Government Association’s view, is that a continuation of that level of cuts going forward through the next Spending Review is not sustainable. Local authorities have managed fantastically well, as the NAO have said, with the cuts so far. We have delivered, but for me it comes back to the accountability structure. We are not allowed to overspend. We are not allowed to borrow, to build up a deficit, and we have to manage within our existing resource. Members can be surcharged and put in prison. It is completely different in the national accountability system. I think that means you do deliver.
I completely agree with you: the worry about delivering is that you might be the victim next time around as well. Local authorities will never overspend, because they are not allowed to, and therefore it is easy, but it will not be easy when we have the service failure that potentially comes alongside that.
Paul Flynn: Putting a few Ministers in prison might produce better Government. It might be a very valuable reform, perhaps.
Carolyn Downs: I would not suggest that personally.
Derrick Anderson: I thought there were two bits to the question, and I will major on the second bit.
Chair: I am afraid you will have to be brief.
Derrick Anderson: I just want to say that different authorities will react and respond in different ways. There are a hell of a lot of downsides that we have identified, and there are one or two upsides as well. The reality is that all of us would acknowledge that one of the disadvantages of a period of plenty has been the creation of dependencies on local government and the State in certain places, which have been unhelpful either to communities or to individuals. Part of the conversation going forward is about changing the relationship between what we do, what communities do, and what individuals do, in a helpful way. As resources decline, it gets more important to have that conversation, and in some senses it is easier to have that conversation.
The other bit is to do with the way in which local government has become more efficient over the last 10 to 15 years, and more businesslike, so that we are all using our balance sheets much more effectively than has been the case in the past. Notwithstanding the fact that, in my own circumstances, by 201617 my spending power will be reduced by 45%, the new relationships we are building with citizens and communities mean we will be in a much stronger place than many of those other authorities, perhaps, who are not thinking as creatively and are not looking for a policydriven approach to responding to the reduction in resources, and are simply salami slicing or cutting.
Q613 Mr Reed: On that point-I know we are trying to be brief-are there lessons that we could draw from that about the future of the Civil Service? Are there any changes we should be calling for in this that would make the kinds of changes you are talking about there, Derrick, easier to deliver?
Derrick Anderson: It is this fundamental issue about renegotiating the relationship between what the Civil Service does and what happens at local government level. That is where the most urgent conversation has to be. There has to be some real localism delivered, via collaboration with local government. That is a big part of the answer. Therefore, looking at all those aspects of operation and delivery, and having a debate about what is sensibly done where, would be my first port of call.
Q614 Mr Reed: Should it be looking at something like they do in Scotland, where they look more at projects in an outcomesbased framework, rather than shoving things through preexisting silos at a local and national level?
Carolyn Downs: Yes, absolutely. We should not kid ourselves, however, that it is easier in Scotland. In Scotland you have a system of local government, where the Government can meet with just the 30odd local authority leaders or chief executives, so it is easier for them to get to grips with some of those crosscutting discussions. As we go forward towards devomax, potentially, and the devolved administrations, we have to start thinking about what happens in England. How is England properly represented? Is local government the mechanism-I would say it should be-to create a structure that gives greater devolution and a greater say to England as a part of the UK?
Q615 Chair: Just very briefly, there are obviously skills gaps in the Civil Service; everyone talks about them. From a local authority perspective-and I am talking about individual skills-what skills do individuals have at local authority level that you think the Civil Service could benefit from?
Carolyn Downs: I think some of those project management, operational delivery skills-stakeholder management, working with partners-are skills we have in abundance. Some of the evidence-based and analytical skills of the Civil Service would be beneficial in local authority environments, so I think it is twoway.
Q616 Chair: So there could be a bit more career exchange between local government and the Civil Service?
Carolyn Downs: Career exchange at an early point in a career is absolutely the right thing to do.
Chair: That is very good. A very interesting point.
Derrick Anderson: The thing that was missing for me was on the management of risk. Again, from personal experience, people tend to tell you about the risk, but if you are adept at managing them, you are aware of them in advance, you are mitigating those risks, such that they do not manifest themselves as a problem in the first place. We have become, in local government, much more focused on the management of risk through risk awareness, rather than the sort of retrofit approaches that the Civil Service tend to take in terms of risk management. I would want to look at risk management in amongst those.
Then there is something else about political astuteness. You can be politically neutral and politically astute and find sensible ways of building good relationships at senior political levels. If you are not politically astute, all that happens is that you get buttingup and tension. The only recourse you then have is to tell people what they cannot do, rather than what they could.
Q617 Chair: Moving on to the question of the local government perspective on the appointment of permanent secretaries, it must seem rather odd that Sir David Normington and the Civil Service Commission should be hanging on so vehemently to control over the appointment of permanent secretaries. What is your perspective on this?
Carolyn Downs: I am very clear in my perspective on this. I absolutely think the system of political appointments-not just of the chief executive but of directors and indeed assistant directors-within the local authority environment creates a very strong ownership on both sides of the relationship between politicians and officials. One thing I would say, however, is that the appointment process is always done on a cross-party basis, so it is not just through a political administration. It is done crossparty, and I think that is fundamentally important.
Q618 Chair: So a singleparty Government should not be in control of the appointment of permanent secretaries and senior officials?
Carolyn Downs: It is interesting, the word permanent, isn’t it? As a local authority Chief Executive, I was appointed by a Labour leader. When we changed political control, and the very first conversation I had with my new Conservative leader was, "Would you like me to leave?" That was the very first conversation I had. Luckily, his answer was, "No, I would be delighted if you stayed."
Q619 Chair: That was because, presumably, he had some influence.
Carolyn Downs: He sat on my appointment panel as Chief Executive.
Q620 Chair: So the Leader of the Opposition would need to sit on the appointment panel for the Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary?
Carolyn Downs: I think that would be a way you could do it. Select Committees operate on a crossparty basis. I think there is a way that you could actually do that.
Q621 Chair: I think you have made the case for Sir David Normington’s resistance, have you not?
Carolyn Downs: That will really endear me to him.
Derrick Anderson: I ebb and flow with this one. I think there are important matters at stake, for which continuity is important, irrespective of Government-continuity of knowledge is important. Therefore there is something that says to me that you need to have capacity for the permanent secretary to stand back from all of that, to ensure that the State jogs along and does all the things it needs to do, and that the right knowledge is there and we do not have to reinvent the wheel every time there is a Government.
Crucially, however, there has to be some mechanism put in there where there is opportunity for a proper conversation to be had with the permanent secretary and the political lead. If that relationship is not strong, then it plays out through the rest of the organisation. Therefore I think there has to be something inbuilt there where there is a point of either agreement or disagreement, formal or otherwise, between permanent secretary and Secretary of State.
Carolyn Downs: It is worth us probably both reflecting, because we will have both sat as advisers to political appointments within local authorities. As the Chief Executive, you sit as an adviser. You do not have a vote in terms of the appointment of the staff that you line manage, who are politically appointed. I have never sat on an appointment panel with members where politicians have not wanted to appoint the person who interviewed best that day, ever, because their political career is entirely related to the ability of that official to do their job well.
Indeed, I have sat as an adviser to some of those panels and actually said, "Yes, they interview very well. Let us really dig behind as to whether they can do their job that well." I have always witnessed Members wanting to appoint the person they believe, impartially, to be the best, and we should always remember that. Otherwise the inference is that members make appointments according to whom they like, etc., and I have not witnessed that in many, many years.
Q622 Mr Reed: We have heard that a lot from senior civil servants speaking to us, who say that even the involvement of politicians, let alone political appointments, in those appointments would compromise the impartiality of the Civil Service. Have you ever found that in local government?
Carolyn Downs: Not personally, no.
Derrick Anderson: No, but I think the point is that we have a culture where the senior management in local government goes into an authority on the basis that things could change. As you know, I was appointed by a Lib Dem/Conservative administration and have gone on to work for a Labour administration subsequently, but that is part of the culture, and you accept that that is how it works. It works pretty effectively.
Carolyn Downs: It works very well indeed. The other point is that I have never known members not say to the chief executive in a political appointment process, "Could you work with this person? If you cannot work with this person, we will not appoint them." I have to say, it is a good system that works well.
Chair: You have been excellent witnesses, and very informative, and I am very glad we have had this extra session as part of our inquiry, to take into account the local government perspective.
Carolyn Downs: It has been a pleasure.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed.