BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 23.06.02

Film: PAUL WILENIUS reports on the tensions between the Government and the Civil Service as Labour tries to deliver on its election promises.

HUMPHRYS: There's always been a certain amount of tension between government ministers who decide on policies and the civil servants who have to carry them out. Creative tension, if you like. But if reports coming out of Whitehall these days are to be believed, it's a lot worse than that. The government is increasingly frustrated because it thinks the civil service simply isn't geared up to deliver the goods. It wants fundamental changes. The new Cabinet Secretary (the most senior civil servant of them all) will be setting out his ideas this week. As Paul Wilenius reports, the men from the ministries remain to be convinced. PAUL WILENIUS: An atmosphere of anxiety surrounds Tony Blair's plans to modernise Britain's public services. So far they're long on ambition, but short on delivery. Despite the elegant policy papers drawn up by his civil servants, there's still delay seeing action in the real world, outside Whitehall. It's making Number Ten nervous about fulfilling its election promises. Worried about dark plots and conspiracies. The behind-the-scenes battles between Labour Party special advisors and civil servants in Stephen Byers transport department exploded into the open recently. Tony Blair's critics say this showed he's obsessed with spin and controlling the government machine. Yet there are wider concerns that it reveals a growing tension between the governing party and the civil service, which could hold back desperately needed public service reform. SIR RICHARD PACKER: One of the problems is that the present administration when they first came in, immediately suggested that they were going to improve the delivery of policies, radically. That was a very large claim - I don't think it was well thought through, and so far it hasn't happened. JACK CUNNINGHAM MP: If ministers are in office and don't know how to take forward, to manage their departmental responsibilities and commitments, that's not the fault of the civil service. That's the fault of the ministers themselves and, and frankly, if people come in to government with no experience of ever managing anything, then we're bound to get some people who think well the world's against me 'cos I'm not doing this or not performing very well when basically it's their own fault or their own inadequacies. WILENIUS: In the beginning in nineteen-ninety-seven, there was euphoria, especially for a victorious Tony Blair. But in the last election campaign he was rebuked publicly, for something he knew privately. UNNAMED WOMAN: "You haven't done anything to help anybody." WILENIUS: He was visibly shocked, and knows things must really get better or he may face much worse next time. On health, education, law and order and other key issues he has to start delivering. But the government fears the civil service may not be up to the job. TIM ALLEN: You've got to remember that when the Labour party took over in ninety-seven, there was a great feeling that there had been drift, there had been lack of co-ordination from the centre, ministers saying whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted, no central organisation of, of, government policies, and so it was, that was part of our criticism of the Major government. That was out in the open as a criticism of, of the way things had been run and it was one of the objectives of the Labour government, was to put that right. PACKER: It is true they've shaken up departments and there's a lot more power in the centre, in one respect, I hasten to add, only in one respect it did remind me of the Third Reich where there was overlapping, overlapping responsibilities and nobody quite knew where ultimate responsibility lay, departments are responsible, there's groups at the centre with the prime ministers' ear and I rather think that from those out on the periphery, it seems as though, if something goes wrong, departmental responsibility is clear, but if something goes right, they read in the newspaper that it was all the Prime Minister's idea. WILENIUS: For Tony Blair and his communications chief Alastair Campbell, centralised control of the government's policies and media message was an obsession. Indeed, there was a feeling that the civil service was just not as good as the slick hi-tech Labour operation. Although key civil servants were moved, retired or sacked, there is still irritation that things move far too slowly. ALLEN: Any prime minister sitting in Number Ten, one of their constant frustrations is, is what they decide to be the policy of the day and what they want to implement often gets changed or stalled as it goes through the chain of Whitehall and, and actually gets implemented on the ground and that is a constant frustration, I'm sure this administration feels it just like others have felt. LORD ROBIN BUTLER: I think if you look at the history of the civil service, you look at it earlier in the century, the civil service was notable, the British civil service was very good at making changes; if you think of the setting up of the welfare state, the national health service, the national insurance system, these were all achievements of the civil service and I believe that, I think it would be astonishing if the civil service was now less good at doing those things than it used to be in the past. WILENIUS: But Labour wasn't convinced. They doubled the numbers of special advisors to eighty and gave these political shock troops unprecedented powers to control Whitehall. They're civil servants, but also political appointees. Yet the public's been shocked by the revelation of the extent of their political partisanship, revealed by the infamous Jo Moore e-mail, and the action of fellow advisor Dan Corry in checking the political background of the Paddington rail crash survivors. Former colleagues insist such behaviour is normal. JOHN McTIERNAN: I think it's very hard to talk dispassionately about the Dan Corry e-mails. I think that everybody who works for a Minister, civil servant or special advisor has a duty to ensure that their minister is fully briefed when they go into a meeting with anybody, whether it's an international delegation or it's a delegation from a local community, in this case a delegation from Paddington Rail Survivors Group. JO GIBBONS: I think that what Dan did was something that special advisers have been doing for years and I'm not just talking about under the current regime I'm talking about under previous regimes - it is quite legitimate to try and establish if there are points of opposition to the government to why those, why those are occurring and it is quite legitimate. ALLEN: Anybody involved in politics when attacked, wants to find out about who the attackers are. I don't think that's particularly new or particularly dangerous. I think, the only new thing is that nowadays you do it through email, and email gets found out. WILENIUS: However, Sir Humphrey is coming out of the shadows to fight back, and there are calls to strip these advisors of their civil service status. LORD BUTLER: Now the time has come really for political special advisors, rather than being treated as temporary civil servants to be treated as employees of political parties who are in government. At the moment the Opposition is given money by, from the public purse to employ their researchers. Now I think that to work for political special advisors the same thing ought to happen in government. There should be money that comes out of taxation, which the government in power, the party in power can use to employ people who are political special advisors, and that that shouldn't, they shouldn't be treated in the same way as civil servants. WILENIUS: Labour gave Number Ten press boss Alastair Campbell and Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell new powers over Britain's bureaucrats. Powers which are also questioned. TIM COLLINS MP: We would not only strip Alastair Campbell of his powers, we'd make it unlawful for anybody to have those powers. It cannot be right for an independent neutral civil service that's supposed to be able to work for any government at any political colour to be under the command of party political hacks, like Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. That is a corrupting process, it should be reversed, and it should be made illegal. WILENIUS: And the traditional impartiality of Whitehall is under threat from another development, according to the former head of the civil service. LORD BUTLER: One aspect that does worry me, is that there have been recently, some people who have got political affiliations who've been appointed to civil service posts. And clearly there is a danger in that because an in-coming government of a different party, may not be so happy about employing those people. WILENIUS: The prospect of even more expert or special advisors coming in to the government from outside, which will be proposed this week, is worrying another former top civil servant. PACKER: The suggestion that yet more advisors might be brought in smacks to me of desperation. We've tried the medicine at one dose, now we're going to multiply the dose by several times and hope that it works. COLLINS: They have to be limited in terms of their numbers, Labour have doubled their numbers. We think they should be cut by at least twenty-five per cent and they should be limited in terms of their powers. They should not have the right to order around career civil servants. WILENIUS: In Parliament, senior MPs are trying to learn more general lessons from the Stephen Byers debacle. The chairman of a Commons Select Committee wants a bill to sort out the problems between civil servants and special advisors. TONY WRIGHT MP: There are some areas which are still areas of potentially difficulty, which need to be identified and, and sorted, and I think as I say, the broad framework of all this now needs to be put on a statutory footing. Not that you would do, not that it would try and cover every detail, that would be silly. But I think the broad, the broad framework has to be set down in law, so as I say we know who these people are, we know what jobs they're supposed to do, and we know what happens if things go wrong. I'm not sure it will be in this Queen's speech. I want it in if not this one, the next one. What I do want is some progress towards getting a civil service bill so that we can give some constitutional protection to the civil service for the first time. That's what the government said it wants to do and I think that will be a very important thing. WILENIUS: But the new Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull is set to unveil modernisation proposals this week which will have the opposite effect. His priority is to open up the civil service to more outsiders, rather than rushing to introduce a civil service bill. ALLEN: I'm not quite what a bill would set out to achieve. There is a very clear distinction between the political role of special advisors and the civil servants, so I'm not sure what problem it would aim to solve. It shouldn't be the civil service's role to somehow take that upon themselves and to tell ministers what they can and can't do. And to tell special advisors that, that although they represent the party that has won an election they, they can and can't do certain things. CUNNINGHAM: I think there is a risk that legislation could make things worse, that obviously depends on the quality of the legislation and the foresight of the people who are designing it. And I think great care needs to be taken to ensure that if there is such a bill and such legislation, it is put on the statute book, that it is pragmatic in how civil servants and ministers would operate in the future. WILENIUS: The real fear permeating the corridors of Whitehall, is that if there isn't a bill, it could spell the destruction of the civil service as we have known it for the last hundred years. LORD BUTLER: There always is a danger of politicisation in the civil service and I'll tell you how it can happen. If an incoming government decided that for example, it was going to appoint permanent secretaries from people who were affiliated to its own party, the next time a government of a different party came in, they would of course not be happy to continue with those people, and they'd want to make a change. Now this has happened to some extent in Australia and it only has to happen once, and that's the end of a permanent civil service. And I'd be very sad to see that, because I think that the permanent non-political civil service has been a great asset to the quality of government in Britain. WILENIUS: The biggest problem for Tony Blair is that he needs the special advisors and civil servants working in Whitehall's backrooms more than ever before. They're vital to help deliver better hospitals, schools, and transport before the next election. However, there are worries this goal could be put in jeopardy by damaging battles with the media and civil service. PACKER: They have given the impression of over regarding presentation, that over regard has now caught up with them, they're finding it rather difficult I would say to give up the over emphasis but real events, real progress are what ultimately governments are judged on, as we have seen, you can fool some of the people all the time, but not for, you can't fool everybody all the time. CUNNINGHAM: When I went to the cabinet office in that new role the prime minister created, I found on my desk a red button in a box, and I asked what it was, and they said 'oh it's a panic button minister' and I said 'well you'd better take it away because part of my job is to tell people not to panic' and I think there's a very important lesson there. You know prime ministers choose people carefully to be in their governments, and they don't choose people expecting them to lash out and blame others or to allege conspiracies in the civil service where none exist or to get into a kind of siege mentality about the media. WILENIUS: Civil servants are hoping this is the kind of advice Tony Blair will be listening to. Otherwise they fear a further deterioration in their relationship between them and the government. They say that's not what they want, instead of being thought of as enemies they want to be regarded as allies, allies who could be vital in the future.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.