Civil Service Reform

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In 2010, when I accepted an invitation to join the Government of Britain, to coin a phrase, I found myself as a Minister in two Departments-the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. My experience was precisely that outlined by the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) as regards the problems of silo Departments. They were two Departments created from one, and they found it very difficult to co-operate to address holistically the problems that clearly needed to be addressed; how to tackle crime, at source, at the earliest possible stage. Just as people were trying to deal with those problems in a joined-up manner on the ground, the Departments had been split nationally.

It was a salutary experience. When I walked into the Ministry of Justice for the first time, I was shown the lifts by my private secretary. The MOJ had a more intelligent allocation of lifts than the Home Office: you indicated the floor you wanted to go to and the right lift would arrive for you. My private secretary told me that it was possible to override the programme in the event of a Division so that a lift would immediately arrive for me, the Minister. I tried this out on what I thought would be a quiet afternoon. The lift hurtled to my floor, and a sign on it said, "This lift is under ministerial control." The doors opened, and out stepped the then Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who questioned whether the lift was indeed under his control. If so, it was about the only thing there that was under ministerial control.

The serious point I want to make is that, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and the right hon. Member for Barking have said, although set by an historical doctrine, questions of accountability arise today. If, in the mid-19th century, a form of permanent government was effectively created, that is fine when that permanent government happens to do things in the way that accountable Ministers like and that is satisfactory, and when it happens to be performing well. The problem comes when that permanent government does not perform well. Accountability then falls on Ministers who have little ability to wrest improvements from the system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex suggested, the failures do not need to be rehearsed. As the right hon. Member for Barking said, there have clearly been major and costly project failures. When this Government came to power, only a third of major projects were running to time and to budget, and the problems have persisted. There are issues with skills, given the commissioning failures we have seen. There is also the issue of poor financial control. It is a paradox that in our centralised state the willingness of the centre to exercise careful financial control over Departments is actually very limited. The Treasury does not wish to exercise that detailed financial management or scrutiny, and it shows. All these things often lead to poor value for money, a waste of resources and poor outcomes. It is the weakest in our society who pay the price, but we all pay a price through higher taxation. I think it is common ground that these issues need to be addressed.

Every time a Government come to power, they arrive believing that there are few problems that cannot be solved by the arrival of an enlightened Government with a different set of political objectives, and that all the problems are the fault of the outgoing Government. That was certainly the case in 1997 and in 2010, when most Ministers-my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office was one of the notable exceptions, and it shows-had little experience of government. Soon the scales drop from Ministers' eyes as they realise that not all the problems can be laid at the political door-the door of the Opposition-and that there are systemic problems.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said, we have an opportunity for forging a cross-party agreement about the changes that need to be made. Why? Because, for the first time since the second world war, every party has had recent experience of being in government and understands that while the political debate goes on, there are issues that we need to address. That is why I am pleased today to have launched GovernUp with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), a non-party project with cross-party support. I am delighted that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is a member of the advisory board. The board also includes the Government's lead non-executive director, Lord Browne; Lord Bichard, a former permanent secretary; Lord Birt and Baroness Lane-Fox-all Cross-Bench peers with important experience to bring.

Over the course of the next year the project will do important research in the areas of accountability, skills and international comparisons-work that needs to be done. It will not do that work alone, or simply be an isolated research project, but will draw on the experience of former Ministers, in this place and outside, and of civil servants, whom we wish to appoint to a reference panel. We have secured agreement to that proposal from the leadership of the civil service and the Minister.

That approach will be evidence-led, will involve detailed and careful research, will be open, involving outside bodies, will involve dialogue with the civil service itself and will draw on the experience of parliamentarians in both Houses. I want to suggest that that is a better approach than that of a parliamentary commission. I have grave doubts about the capability of a parliamentary commission to do what is necessary. Indeed, I think that the concept of a parliamentary commission-an old-fashioned, inquisitorial model-is entirely wrong, quite apart from the question of who would be on it. The real question is whether it is a body that looks backwards of forwards: do its members wish to be a part of it because they think that proposals for civil service reform are dangerous and wrong, or are they looking forward to addressing the challenges that face this country and the kind of system we need to develop? The danger of the commission as currently constituted, with a judge leading it, is that it would be the worst kind of backward-looking and reactionary body, so I do not support the proposal.

Although the Public Administration Committee report has some interesting content, I think it is evidence of some of the weaknesses of a parliamentary approach. After months of deliberation and evidence-taking, what is the report's conclusion? It is that there needs to be an inquiry. Where are the detailed recommendations? Where is the detailed analysis and evidence of the kind of change we need? We have only a year left and I believe that now is the time to do the careful work.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am disappointed at the right hon. Gentleman's criticism of the concept, but the fact is that there are enormously wide ranges of views about the civil service. A conclusion would not have been consensual: there would have been serious division among members of the Select Committee and we would have gotten nowhere. A parliamentary commission could do that job.

Nick Herbert: I find great difficulty in understanding how a cross-party Select Committee would find it impossible to come to a conclusion, but a parliamentary commission would not. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain that.

Mr Jenkin: Why does my right hon. Friend think that the think-tank he has set up would be any more objective than a parliamentary commission? Indeed, how would it be more objective when it has been sanctioned and approved by the Cabinet Secretary and the civil service-the very thing he seeks to reform?

Nick Herbert: I agree with the right hon. Member for Barking that we should let a thousand flowers bloom. Many will wish to do work in this area, but I doubt very much that the GovernUp initiative, which I and the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) have set up, is sanctioned by the leaders of the civil service. What I specifically said was that they had agreed that civil servants could perhaps sit on a reference panel. That does not mean that they would have control over any of the body's work. My argument is that we now need to do the work. It is the detailed research and analysis that we need to do; we do not need political grandstanding or an inquisitorial approach. That is why I think that the proposed parliamentary commission would be wrong.

I believe that the narrative of Whitehall wars, whereby Ministers are at loggerheads with civil servants, is wrong and misplaced. There is plenty of evidence that civil servants themselves seek change. Indeed, the Public Administration Committee report notes that Lord O'Donnell, the previous Cabinet Secretary, said in his evidence that

"if you really want to improve public sector outcomes, I think there is a radical transformation necessary."

It seems to me, therefore, that the question is not whether change is necessary, but what is the nature of the change and who will make the case for it? Do we have a system that is equal to the challenges facing this country, with rising demand for services, the need to adjust to further spending reductions in the next Parliament and in the future, and the fact that we face ever greater international competition? All parties need to understand that Government reform is as significant as, and essential for, public service reform. That is why this is such an important issue.