HC Deb 15 December 1999 vol 341 cc257-9
3. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What plans she has to change the designation, role and employment conditions of permanent secretaries. [101544]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam)

I have no plans to do so but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained in his answer to a parliamentary question today, the permanent secretary heads of Department are themselves driving forward a radical programme of civil service reform. That will involve them adopting a corporate leadership role and participating in a management board for the civil service under the chairmanship of Sir Richard Wilson. That represents a major programme of change that will affect staff at all levels, including permanent secretaries.

Mr. Prentice

I take it from my right hon. Friend's answer that Sir Humphrey Appleby is dead and buried. If we are to have a new breed of civil servants delivering on the targets on which new Labour places such great store, surely there must be absolute transparency. Those who criticise us for politicising the civil service should get short shrift because new Labour would never do that.

There have been suggestions that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to keep a grip on Whitehall, wants to establish a Prime Minister's Department, perhaps allied with the Cabinet Office. Has my right hon. Friend any comments to make on that speculation?

Marjorie Mowlam

My hon. Friend referred to Sir Humphrey. I had my trouble when I started working with the civil service and I did not find it easy. However, over the years of working with members of it, I have come to respect the work that they do and the impartiality and propriety that they bring to the job. I am not sure that my hon. Friend's initial comments are in any way helpful or constructive.

We support my hon. Friend's point about transparency. When he has had the chance to read all of "Modernising government", which relates to the public service, he will recognise that transparency is a crucial part of it.

The answer to the last part of my hon. Friend's question is no.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Minister recognise that there is a remarkable coincidence, because the report to which she has referred appears just two days before the end of the evidence-taking sessions of the Phillips inquiry into BSE? Sir Richard Wilson's report on behalf of the permanent secretaries is apparently suggesting an extension of performance-related pay. Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that if there is any repetition of the bungles that were obviously characteristic of the previous Government over BSE, there will be reductions in the pay of higher civil servants?

Marjorie Mowlam

I get the gist of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making but the nature of the report is for the civil service. It is implementing it and it is in consultation over it. I am sure that those responsible have heard the hon. Gentleman's point.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that as a result of today's report from the head of the home civil service to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the permanent secretaries of the future will have experience of front-line delivery of services, experience of operational management and experience outside Whitehall?

Marjorie Mowlam

Obviously, I cannot give such a guarantee, but I can say that the appointments will be open and transparent. One of the objects of the report is to encourage greater exchange between the public and private sectors, and between the voluntary sector and both, so that best practice and good experience are shared. The process will be open and transparent. There will be some secondees—there are at present more than 100— from the private to the public sector. I hope, as does the head of the civil service, that that arrangement will continue. It is a two-way street, which can only promote the efficient use of taxpayers' money and more effective services.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that Sir Richard Wilson's report includes among the core values of the civil service its political impartiality? Will she therefore give the House two assurances—first, that the performance measures for which permanent secretaries will be held responsible will be in relation to targets for which they are directly responsible as administrators, not targets derived from the policy decisions of Ministers, for which Ministers should be held accountable?

Secondly, given the undermining of political impartiality by political appointments such as the Prime Minister's chief press spokesman and the chief economic adviser to the Treasury, will the right hon. Lady guarantee that no further appointments in the senior civil service will be made on a political, rather than an independent, basis?

Marjorie Mowlam

To deal with the final point first, unfounded accusations are not helpful to either party in government. I could stand at the Dispatch Box and list appointments under the previous Government, such as that of the then Mr. Burns, but that would get us nowhere. We do not make political appointments to civil service posts. The political advisers are a valuable asset because they provide a political dimension alongside the civil service. Impartiality is crucial; it exists and will continue.

On performance targets, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the report. They are Department-linked, and I believe that that will continue.