25 July 2012

A fortnight ago the Lords Constitution Select Committee examined an impressive list of witnesses. Four Cabinet Secretaries provided their perspective on measures to improve the accountability of the civil service. All four, who on retirement were elevated to the peerage, seemed to frustrate the members by their mutually reinforcing statements and their reluctance to acknowledge merit in the changes proposed by the Select Committee to enhance accountability.

The transcript reflects the understated drama of the morning, with Parliamentary etiquette masking attempts by their Lordships to get the witnesses to make concessions.

Lord Armstrong was Cabinet Secretary from 1979 – 1987. He restated the convention, a principle, that civil servants were responsible to Ministers, and Ministers were accountable to Parliament. “…It would be very difficult for civil servants to be accountable to two masters. No man can serve two masters…the principle remains valid …” He wouldn’t be drawn on a new accountability to Select Committee.  He did not think “… that a Select Committee is the ideal body to sit in judgment on the conduct of a civil servant…” despite a former lord chancellor attempting to manoeuvre him into a corner.

Lord Wilson, Cabinet Secretary from 1998 – 2002 provided very readable observations.  He reprised a comment of Lord Armstrong that having long left the role, he was now “ten years out of date”. He restated conventions. “…The national interest and the general public interest is that civil servants should give their best advice to Ministers without worrying that they are going to be drawn into the public arena.. We don’t have a politicised Civil Service….” He described the Northcote -Trevelyan principle of merit appointments as a bedrock. The non disclosure of policy advice is another bedrock. The Osmotherly rules about handling discipline within departments provide yet another bedrock. Another is that civil servants speak at Select Committee on behalf of their Minister, not of themselves.  He thought “…the idea that civil servants should be responsible personally on the basis of a Select Committee hearing, is offensive to the concept of fairness…”

Lord Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary from 2002 – 2005 explored the distinction between accountability and responsibility. He debunked the growing enthusiasm that Select Committees should examine officials and former Ministers involved in programmes despite having moved to different responsibilities.  “…It is a sort of Voltairean view of pour encourager les autres; you punish certain people or shame them as opposed to the system that is directed at how to deal with this problem and make sure it does not recur…”

The whole thing is an interlocking system and if you disturb one element of it, you put another element out of kilter…there is a whole apparatus of checks, balances and approvals ….If you want a system in which officials can say ‘I advised against this’ or even worse, ‘He did not even bother to consult me’  you then have to look all the way down the chain at what other things that would dislodge and destabilise. It would destabilise a great many parts of this system…”

Lord O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary from 2005 – 2012 short circuited his examination by stating that he agreed with Lord Wilson and Lord Turnbull and if he had heard Lord Armstrong he almost certainly would have agreed! He strongly agrees with the Osmotherly rules  and the system which he believes has worked extremely well.  These are not the elements that have to be changed to improve accountability. He assertively told the Committee that to improve accountability “…the civil servant bit is tiny. The really important bit is: can you define and be clear about who is accountable for what, in the way you set up the agency?”

“The most important thing you can do is say. ‘Let’s think about how we improve the accountability system by looking at the Select Committees and what they do. Let’s be clear with the Select Committees what their objectives are, how they are going to be measured against them, who is going to do it…There is no need to change their resources. Just say, ‘What is your objective? Let  us be clear about objectives. What are your success measures?’  …I am telling you that the thing that would make the most difference is accountability. We have a system. We have changed it.”

“ …Departments do respond to Select Committee reports and in their responses…and … say precisely how they are going  to respond… It does create another problem though. I would stress that you are forever fighting the last war on those fronts…. Should a Select Committee always be backward-looking?…Should the Select Committees be thinking about the next set of crises and sorting out a situation so that we are robust and ready?” …That is again one of the areas where you could say to Select Committees, ‘Do you see your role as just digging over the past or so you see your role as saying ‘Actually, we are not sure that you have the capability to manage future crises’?…”

“If we are going to improve accountability, we need to be absolutely clear about outcomes and who is dealing with them….