HL Deb 19 February 1941 vol 118 cc413-42

LORD PERRY rose to call attention to the administration of Government Departments in war-time; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am calling attention to the functioning of Government Departments in war-time, when abnormal conditions compel a change of habits, outlook and behaviour. Your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that what may be adequate when the business of Government flows more or less smoothly along established channels is altogether insufficient when the obstructions of special demands threaten to check the flow, choke the channels, and necessitate an application of driving force. The present war is in many respects unlike any war which has been fought in historical times. The British Empire, with Allies whose moral supports much greater than their material help, stands alone in the world at arms in defence, for ourselves and the whole of civilisation, of a heritage distilled by our ancestors from centuries of experience—a heritage which a short time ago President Roosevelt most ably defined as "Freedom of speech and expression; freedom and the right to worship God wherever He may be found; freedom from want and freedom from fear." By the exploitation of treachery and bad faith, a rabble of upstart plunderers has overrun Europe. This time last year the Empire of France was at our side as an Ally. Other great nations—Norway, the ancient home of the Vikings; Holland, the one time mistress of the seas—were amongst those who still enjoyed freedom. To-day, at least so far as Europe is concerned, they are bond slaves to an organisation of depravity, wickedness, corruption, and evil.

This has been brought about because the nations of Europe, including Britain, believed the word of a man who was a self-declared liar from the beginning. They paid no heed until he offered them his protection and then, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they saw that they were naked and were afraid. All Europe, including Britain, had one fault in common: they believed that Germany could be bought off. We called it appeasement in this country, defeatism in France and Belgium, credulity in Scandinavia and Holland, and sheer funk in Rumania and Hungary. It is all a question of terminology. The war we are now fighting is unlike all preceding wars because in the British Empire we know what we are fighting for. And there is no one in this country who wants to stop the war at any point short of complete victory. The nation, the Empire, most of the civilised world, know that we shall win. But are we compelled to muddle through to victory?

Probably never before have there been so many changes of Ministers and in the High Command as have occurred during this present war. We are now led by a second Prime Minister—God bless and preserve him!—we have had four War Ministers, three Secretaries of State for Air, plus one Minister of Aircraft Production, making four in all, three Ministers of Supply, three Presidents of the Board of Trade, three Ministers of Transport, three Secretaries of State for the Dominions, throe Ministers of Shipping, three Ministers of Information, and so forth. There have been numerous changes in the officers holding high positions in the Fighting Forces. The purpose of these changes, it must be assumed, is to secure greater efficiency by using men with the best brains and experience. Ministers of the Crown are served by a personnel which has been carefully selected for peace-time pursuits. It consists of a body of men and women highly trained in their profession, and, indeed, throughout the world without rival for integrity and sense of duty. It is only those having experience, as I have, of Government servants in other countries, who can appreciate that the British permanent official is in a class by himself. He is never failing in courtesy and deportment. His patience exceeds the patience of Job. He never hurries to a decision but invariably consults his colleagues and discusses with them concerning even the most trivial of details. He believes that second thoughts are better than quick decision and that to sleep on a matter is preferable to immediate action. He is conscientious to a scruple in his care of public funds. To secure "Treasury sanction" is in many quarters a synonym for having achieved the impossible. This, I feel sure your Lordships will concede, is a fair description of the attributes of the civil servant.

If he is less cautious than I have described, he frequently seeks another walk of life where he may experience greater freedom of action and have opportunity for enterprise and initiative. Indeed. many famous names, which are household words with us, belonged to men who were civil servants, that is were servants of their country in a capacity other than as members of a fighting force. The archaic phrasing of present-day Civil Service correspondence may perhaps be traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser; ponderosity and emphasis of the unreal may be lineal descendants of John Milton and John Locke. The obsession for Minute records is obviously derived from Samuel Pepys and it would be difficult to avoid observing the emulations of Charles Lamb's essays which are to be found in the "jackets" of every Government Department to-day. Isaac Newton alone seems to have failed to have left his impress on the traditions and practice of the Service, although he was Master of the Mint! In more recent times the names of W. W. Jacobs, A. B. Walkley and others will immediately spring to the mind as civil servants who found sufficient leisure to secure eminence in other professions.

Whence and how is such an illustrious body of men recruited? The procedure appears to be that given a young man on the threshold of life, whose ceiling of ambition is short hours, little work, mediocre surroundings and no responsibility, with the knowledge that so long as he does not commit an outrage, he has a "cushy" job for life, and that there is no one who can discharge him because of stupidity, or lack of interest in his work; given a young man who is content to go through life waiting year by year for dead men's shoes to secure promotion, and whose goal is to reach sixty years when he can retire on half pay—that is the man who is attracted by the Civil Service.

He passes an examination and his name is put down on a waiting list. Eventually he gets to the top of the list and he begins his work somewhere in Whitehall. There is no one who can discharge him, excepting Death itself. And, in a general sense, there is no one who can promote him but Death itself. If Death is kind, by the quick removal of his seniors, he may, on approaching his sixtieth birthday, be in receipt of a salary of £3,000 a year with an Order of the Bath.

As an administrative officer he is in charge of a personnel over whom he has none of the ordinary accepted powers and authority. He may not dismiss incompetent subordinates any more than he can engage a messenger to run errands; consequently he has no opportunity of demonstrating judgment as to the character and abilities of men. In the course of his duties he buys nothing, he sells nothing, he pays for nothing. He never has anything at risk and therefore lacks that great champagne of life—the thrill of hazard. When it is necessary for him to see anyone outside of Government circles, he raises his finger and sends for the desired person to call at his office. As a consequence, he never mixes in the world and is woefully ignorant of the swaying passions and interests which dominate ordinary humanity engaged in the manifold struggles of life. "Take no responsibility" is the corner-stone and keystone of the permanent Civil Service structure. Money, my Lords, is the yardstick which measures success in most walks of life. When money has been acquired, and to most ambitious men it is an ever-receding goal, there is but one further thing remaining and that is power.' The limits of money rewards are rigidly defined and fixed in the Civil Service, so that, after satisfying the needs of mediocrity, any ambition which remains must seek after power. In Whitehall power is closely associated with politics. Indeed there is little scope for the exercise of power otherwise. As a consequence, the Civil Service, although so outwardly self-effacing, is really a, seething mass of well-trained gentlemen of leisure grabbing after power.

Your Lordships will not be concerned with the small and insignificant trifles which serve as identifications of power on the way up to the top, but at the top power is to be spelt with a capital P, because the higher officials of the Civil Service are the permanent Government of this country. Ministers come and Ministers go—and some of them do so with alarming rapidity—but the permanent official survives them all. When a Minister changes his office he walks into a new and strange land populated by exponents of a subject of which he, the Minister, has been appointed to be a master but really knows very little. He must learn from his permanent officials. However great may be the Minister at the hustings or on the public platform, when he becomes a Minister it is a civil servant who is his wet-nurse, and when an indignant country demands a change of Government it is a civil servant who is his pall Bearer. This is power and, what is strangest of all, power without responsibility. In the words of Lord Hewart: Of all methods of administration, that is the worst whereby real power is in the hands of one set of persons, while public responsibility belongs to another set of persons. The last war gave a great impetus to this tendency which has continued to grow until it may well be said that Bureaucracy "doth bestride the; narrow world like a Colossus "and it may be asked" Upon what meat doth this our Cæsar feed that he is grown so great? The answer which has been suggested is that "New Despotism," as Lord Hewart terms it, battens on the Constitution itself. Instead of seizing power by arbitrary action, the bureaucrats have usurped it by Act of Parliament.

This was clearly and concisely condemned by Sir John Marriott in his article on "Law and Liberty" in the Fortnightly Review for July, 1928, when he said: It is my profound conviction that the prevailing and increasing disposition on the part of the British Parliament to confer upon the Executive quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative functions is wholly mischievous and ought to be resisted.

Parliament is passing ever-increasing legislation, couched in general terms, and leaving it to the Departments to work out detailed regulations necessary to give effect to the Statutes. These regulations have all the force of law. More than 2,000 Statutory Orders were in fact issued in 1940. It is gratifying to note a sense of awakening consciousness on the part of Members of Parliament from time to time, as exemplified during the current debate on the War Damage Bill. I quote from the Official Report of 23rd January, 1941. Major Milner said: The whole administration and conduct of matters arising under the Bill would be in the hands of the Treasury and not in the hands of the War Damage Commission at all. The commission would merely be a channel, or more properly an agent of the Treasury. … It would be bound hand and foot by the Treasury. … Many of us feel that there is already far too much power given to the Executive. …

Sir Patrick Hannon followed with: It is true that we have been conferring upon the Treasury inordinate powers in relation to the administration of public Acts in the country. … I hope that some limitation will in future be placed on this kind of extension of the powers of bureaucracy. It is wrong that we should remove from Parliament the powers that Parliament ought to exercise.

Such opposition is unfortunately rare and unheeded. Unless Parliament as a whole will take the trouble to scrutinise all proposals from the constitutional aspect, one great principle of our democratic Constitution, "the sovereignty of Parliament" will soon have to give place to the "sovereignty of the Civil Service."

I am, however, not now concerned with the constitutional or judicial aspects of bureaucracy. I have merely referred briefly to ideas expressed by leading authorities to illustrate the growing powers of the permanent officials. The price paid for this power is, of course, a sacrifice of all recognised self-expression, and an ability to be all things to all men. For Ministers change and a reactionary Party Government of to-day becomes the Radical Socialist Government of tomorrow, but both are served by the same permanent officials. It is probably impossible to escape the necessity of delegating powers in circumstances like the present. But it is imperative that executive functions should be exercised only by those who can adapt themselves to the changing conditions and needs of the nation in war time. Peace-time methods of the Civil Service obviously cannot be expected to meet war-time conditions; still less are they adequate for such a war as the present one. Is the Executive suitably constituted and organised to exercise its rapidly expanding powers? If not, is it willing to adapt itself to do so? Some have suggested, and probably not without justification, that more effort is directed towards the acquisition of bureaucratic powers than to the prosecution of the war It is a bureaucracy controlled by men of remarkable ability, quite capable of carrying out their duties in a leisurely, unimaginative and prescribed manner, but quite incapable, by inclination and training, of exercising initiative and taking responsibility, as is indicated by their method of communicating with the outside world. Correspondence always commences "I am instructed" and finishes "Your obedient servant," neither statement being, in fact, true. The general administration is cumbersome and procrastinating; short-sighted and opportunist; swathed in forms, ceremonies and red tape.

Such a body must be at a serious disadvantage when undertaking functions far removed from those originally intended, especially when it attempts to grapple with the problems connected with the conduct of modern warfare. Unfortunately this has not been sufficiently realised by those outside and still less has it been realised inside the Service itself. Lord Hewart says "One of the marks of despotism, as history shows, is that it is unreachable." To meet the exigencies of war-time conditions attempts have been made to modify a cumbersome and antiquated machine by introducing new parts instead of evolving a new model suited to the needs of the situation. It would appear that the preservation of the old type of machine is of greater consequence than its output and efficiency. Indeed, so arduous is the perseverance for the preservation of the species that many thousands have been removed far from their necessary contacts, apparently only to escape all dangers of elimination. You may decide to mechanise your Army, to increase the offensive and defensive equipment of your Navy; you may set out, by constant experiment and at great hazard, to build up the finest Air Force in the world; but the Ministers who take the responsibility for the Forces are dependent upon the civil servant working in his musty office somewhere in Whitehall or elsewhere. He is not a mere cog in the machinery; he is the power, and without him nothing can move. He is the steam in the engine, and the steam is of very low pressure and operates through many complications of valves, governors, gauges and other contraptions designed—deliberately designed—to afford the maximum of obstruction and delay.

The country is now engaged in a stupendous conflict. Our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen, our guns and equipment, our ships and our aeroplanes were all submitted to some description of emergency training and testing. They are now subjected to the searching tests of war. At least our Fighting Forces and their equipment were selected, trained and designed for use in the contingency of war. Not so the Civil Service, the exclusively peace-time functions of which I have attempted to describe to your Lordships. So as to obtain greater supplies of munitions of war and to ensure food for the Forces and non-combatant citizens, the State has taken over and controls many branches of industry, transport and food supplies. All of the work of securing these munitions and supplies falls upon the Civil Service. Obviously the peacetime establishment is insufficient and help is needed; not assistance to carry on and perpetuate leisurely, procrastinating, obstructive methods of peace-time government, but something quite different. Instead of leisure, intense application is now required; instead of exchange of inter-departmental opinions, it is quick action which is of paramount importance. An entirely new job has to be done. To create instead of obstruct, to loosen instead of tighten the purse-strings is now necessary.

New Government Departments are created and skeleton-staffed by robbing personnel from the establishment of the peace-time Service, all for the purpose of perpetuating ignorance and prejudice, and instilling bad practice into the minds of the new help which has to be recruited. So as to preserve the atmosphere of dilettantism, additional help was in the first case recruited from among the academic, scientific and professorial classes, but it was very quickly seen that, whether or not this was a wise choice, there were not enough to go round; consequently the help of business men was enlisted. Much responsibility should thereby have been taken away from the permanent officials. They, however, were reluctant to part with any executive powers. The Fourth Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure (now sitting) comments, for example: We have been impressed in the first place by the great amount of time of the highest officials in the Ministry which has been and still is being absorbed in this process of bargaining. We regard this as unfortunate at a time when the full energies of the leading officials are required for constructive planning and administration.

I should like, with your Lordships' permission, to emphasize a characteristic of officials which is altogether different from the principles which guide our nation as a whole. The public servant, perhaps quite properly, is the embodiment of hesitation, suspicion and distrust. His training is to rake as his motto "My country, right or wrong," and his outlook upon life-is based upon the axiom "The King can do no wrong." These admirable sophistries arc excellent in a general sense, but they necessitate very great discretion and a maximum of care and accurate judgment in their individual application. They must never be put forward as excuses for sharp practice and wilful obstruction. In this country we do not apply the principle that every accused person is guilty until he is proved innocent. The business man and the civil servant are therefore opposite in their outlook upon life. The business man has succeeded because of courage, confidence and trust. The fabric of this nation of shopkeepers of ours is credit—credit based upon straightforward dealing, quick action and honourable undertaking. No business man, for instance, piles up files of correspondence and memoranda to justify himself. He is his own justification. That he makes mistakes is human. Life consists in correcting mistakes. When such a man is called upon in national emergency to end help to this country in a crisis he does not expect that all his experience, freedom of action and responsibility for taking decisions will be circumscribed and circumvented by ceremonial red tape and the imposition and supervision of officialdom. He is adaptable of course, and only too willing to reconcile himself to the influence of precedents, but his environment is strange and he is made to feel unwelcome because the permanent official objects to any suggestion that quick decision and action are imperative necessities. The intrusion of a business man disturbs and upsets the quiet restful procrastination which is the alpha and omega of life in Whitehall. The suggestion of having to take or share responsibility, and the necessity to rub shoulders with men who are accustomed to face the rough and tumble of life is distasteful.

But the strange new power of holding the destinies of tens of thousands of auxiliary workers is intoxicating to the permanent official. The effect of sudden change such as added responsibilities and enlarged sphere of action are problems which have to be faced by everyone having authority. Will the new load carry with it that last straw which proverbially breaks the camel's back? Will the expanded vista occasion loss of proper perspective and provoke that mental giddiness vulgarly known as swelled-head? These considerations cannot be ignored. As I have said, soldiers, sailors and airmen adapt themselves to the necessities of their new occupations. Politicians and Ministers do the same, but the executive officers of government are permitted to carry on in their old ways. Why should this be? War demands greater change and adaptability of the civil than of the Fighting Forces of the Crown.

The inviolate position of the civil servant has apparently had to be contended with throughout the ages. Two thousand years ago, as Plutarch records, when Cato was appointed to the office of Quaestor he found the "permanent officials" of the Treasury were in control, while the Quaestor or Minister of Finance appointed by the Senate, being dependent on what they chose to tell him, remained simply a figurehead. Cato, however, was made of sterner stuff and made himself thoroughly familiar with the working of the department. He soon found it necessary to make drastic changes amongst the officials. By this means he reformed the administration and brought efficiency to the department. Here I quote the delightful words of North's translation: But Cato not contenting himself with the name and honour of the thing, did thoroughly understand what the clerks and registrars should be, and therefore would have them to be as they should be, administrators under the Quaestor only… Thus having pulled down the pride and stomach of these clerks, and brought them into reason, in short time he had all the tables and records at his commandment, and made the Treasure Chamber as honourable as the Senate itself.

I recited to your Lordships the extraordinary rapidity with which Ministers have been changed since the outbreak of war. Why have the executive and administrative Departments been immune? It is they who are charged with the duty of arming and equipping our Fighting Forces. Are there no complaints of lack of foresight and prevision in the supply of fighting equipment, in the control of shipping and transport, in the administration of home affairs and in agricultural and food interference? I am not suggesting that the extraordinary demands which are made upon the national resources and purchasing power can be satisfied in the same way as a conjuror produces rabbits, but has there not been thoughtlessness and undue delay involving considerable loss of life, extraordinary extravagance, and a prevalence of misery, suffering and discomfort, which could and should have been avoided? No good purpose would be served, I am sure, by giving a long list of such cases, as it would not be in the public interest to disclose now the many distressing details which are forthcoming, but I would refer your Lordships to the various Reports of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, which are most enlightening having regard to the necessity for silence under which its various Sub-Committees work.

Weeks after Mr. Churchill became Prime Minister, almost a year after the country had been at war, a member of the War Cabinet stated that "in the past few weeks there has been a great swing over to war production." Which of the great Departments of State was responsible for the previous non-production? Whatever answer you choose, the administrative and executive control was in the hands of the permanent officials. It would be gratifying to think that the swing over announced last July was complete and permanent, but can it be complete or can it be permanent so long as the executive Government of the country is entrusted to men, who, by inclination and training, are opposed to everything which will disturb their serenity; who know nothing of the essential, fundamental duties which require immediate and unremitting attention if our country is to win an early victory? I hope your Lordships will agree that I have made out something of a case to show cause why the most important of the nation's Services demands closest possible scrutiny and investigation, and should be subjected to the same disciplinary action as is practised in other Departments of State and, indeed, in all walks of life. The reason for changes of Ministers is certainly gossiped about as being because they have not proved to be good Ministers, but when one finds a succession of ill-suited Ministers, it surely is permissible to ask whether it is the Minister who is to blame or the staff which is at fault.

I would therefore impress upon the Government the need for examining the system of doing things as they are now done. I do not suggest any such inquiry as that being conducted by the Select Committee on National Expenditure, although that Committee is instructed to report what economies may be effected. I assure your Lordships that experience proves that economy follows in the footsteps of efficiency.

In conclusion, my Lords, I would trespass upon your time for a few more moments to ask your consideration of what I have said as it applies to the miracle of the morale of our people. It was not the fatuous optimism of statesmen in the early days of the war or propaganda regarding war aims, or any confidence inspired by a continuous reshuffling of our Ministers' duties, which created the wonderful spirit we have found to inspire our country and Empire. If one is to give any human reason for the hardiness of our people during the past nine or ten months, it is rather to be found in the words quoted by our Prime Minister: "I have nothing to offer but blood and toil and tears and sweat." It was not traditional British race and blood, or any hereditary pride in the liberties which our ancestors have won for us as a nation which prevented the thousands of alien residents in London, many of whom could not even speak English and had but an instinctive idea of British liberty, from panicking and rioting when they were subjected to mass murder from the air. It was something far higher than human agency. I have personally seen not a little and heard a great deal more of the conduct of the nation's affairs by our civil Departments of State during these trying times. I know of nothing worth while and worthy which they have done since the war began, and I would remind them that the same authority which said "Ask and it shall be given you" also laid it down that "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, may I intervene for one moment to remind the noble Lord who has just addressed us that it is the tradition of your Lordships' House that speeches should be delivered and not read?


My Lords, the noble Lord who has introduced this question has made what I, at any rate, consider an extraordinarily interesting and valuable contribution to our debates. He has raised several very important questions, and one in particular, which I hope your Lordships will consider very carefully and take whatever measures are thought right in order to investigate the evils that exist and remedy them. May I preface the observations which I shall address to your Lordships, and which I hope will be short, by a gentle protest? The noble Lord compared business men with officials, very much to the advantage of business men. I have the greatest respect for business men because I know I am not one myself, and therefore I admire the qualities which I do not possess; but I am bound to point out to the noble Lord that in the last war—I say nothing about the present war for obvious reasons—on the whole the record of business men in public administration was not very good. There were a great many tried, but very few of them really succeeded, and on the whole men of very different type were the best recruits that were brought in to assist the nation in the extraordinary difficulties of carrying on a great European war. I am not going to pursue that subject, but the noble Lord might perhaps be interested if he would study the records of actual experience in the last war. That is only by the way.

The basis of the noble Lord's observations was this—that the government of the country is in the hands of the permanent officials. If that proposition is established, I should agree that that is a very serious criticism of our present machinery of administration for many reasons. My own judgment is that permanent officials are not the people to be entrusted with the great responsibility of decisions on policy and on what ought to be done in great emergencies. I agree, therefore, that if it be true—and so far as it is true—that permanent officials really are in control of the government of the country, that is a very serious criticism of our system. The noble Lord made some very severe criticisms of the methods. I am sure I am interpreting his view when I say that he desired to make no personal attack on any particular official and that, on the contrary, he recog- nised that by their standards, and with their conception of what their duties are, they are very valuable public servants. I am sure all of us who have had any experience of permanent officials will agree with that.

But he said that the system under which they worked and which they supported involved intolerable delays, and was also perverted by an extreme narrowness of vision which prevented officials from looking at the broad general aspects of the emergencies and difficulties they have to meet. I think there is a good deal of truth in that, and all of us who have had any kind of experience, or have been able to watch the administration in this country, must be aware that on these occasions when the government or the administration of a particular Department is left in the hands of the permanent officials, it is true that there is a tendency for great delays to take place, for a want of proportion, a refusal to upset old departmental traditions, however great the public need may be. All these things many of us must have noticed on particular occasions. But the fault really is, as I think, in the fact, which does not apply to all Departments, certainly not to all Governments—it does to some Governments and some Departments—that the function of the permanent official has not been reserved for that which he can most admirably do.

It is not the function of the permanent official, in my judgment, to direct policy or even make great administrative decisions. His business is to see that the decisions arrived at, the policy laid down, arc carried out in the best possible way, that all the details of administration are rendered possible and easy to be worked so that the policy will not be hindered by administrative difficulty. Many of us must have had experience of a great permanent official working out the policy of his chief. Many of us probably have had experience of a permanent official who has been of a wholly different opinion to his chief, thinking that the policy his chief has decided upon was wrong, yet carrying out with the utmost loyalty and ability the necessary measures in order to make that policy as efficient as it could possibly be made. If it were proper for me to do so, I could give instances from my personal knowledge of that kind of thing having been done, and every one of your Lordships who have had any experience of the kind will, I am sure, agree with me. The whole thing depends on the bureaucracy being subject to Parliament as a whole and to the Parliamentary chief acting as the agent and leader of the Parliamentary machine.

That is the essence of our system. As for Parliament I am laudator temporis acti. I cannot help feeling that there has been a growing subordination of the House of Commons to the Cabinet and a loss of individuality and energy by your Lordships' House which are due to circumstances altogether beyond your Lordships' control. The result has been that the direct control and influence of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords on the administration of the country has sunk very much in the last fifty years, and on the whole I think that has been a great misfortune to the country. But the cases in which Parliament could intervene effectively in the detail of administration are very rare. Members have not got the opportunity or the time or the possibility of discussing and forming an opinion generally on such matters. Their influence must be as a kind of court of appeal from the decision of the Parliamentary chiefs, and their function mainly is to express their view, either by vote or by debate, that a particular chief has been inadequate for the post to which he has been appointed, and to demand or suggest that his post should be changed. That has happened, as we all know, in recent months on more than one occasion.

Ultimately the machinery for the initiation of policy must rest with the Ministers and the Cabinet for the time being, and I agree with what the noble Lord has said that there is something wanting in that part of our machinery. I think it is true that on the whole Ministers have less control over their Departments and exercise it less frequently than they did in times past. I am quite aware that to many people it seems absurd that a Parliamentary chief entering upon the duties of a Department with perhaps very little previous experience will be able to control that Department and insist on his policy being carried out, but I am quite sure that that can be done, and is done frequently, and always when the Minister is really fit for the post that he occupies. It is his business to initiate and carry through policy. If that is not done, if the policy is left in the hands of the permanent officials, if the bureaucratic delays and narrowness of which the noble Lord complains really exist, as they do exist in some cases, then that is the fault of the Parliamentary chief, and it is because that part of our machinery is not working satisfactorily that these difficulties occur.

May I call your Lordships' attention to one, as it seems to me, rather striking fact, and that is the tragic frequency with which in the last, let us say, thirty or forty years Ministers have broken down under the strain of office and been driven either to resignation or to complete inability to discharge their duties? I do not think it would be very courteous or decorous to mention names, but any of your Lordships who think over the history of the last fifty years will be able to supply a large number of such names. It seems to me that that is the great danger that we and indeed all democracies are in—the tremendous strain that it puts on the really crucial official, the Parliamentary official, who ought to have all the responsibility and by far the largest part of the administrative power. It all depends on him. You must have in that man a man of considerable ability. He must have the art of government, not only, if the noble Lord will forgive my saying so, the art of directing a great commercial or industrial machine; he must have the art of government, he must know how to act, how to recommend his policy to Parliament and the country as well as how to initiate it. There is a series of extraordinarily interesting articles by General Wavell which have just been published in The Times, and in to-day's article he recognises with great truth and great impartiality the immense difficulty that the Minister has in properly administering military affairs because of the fact that he has to do it as part of the government of the country.

I will not detain your Lordships longer. I do think that is the essential part of our system. I think that there has been an immense growth of business, an immense growth of the actual amount that has to be read by a departmental Minister, a tremendous call upon his time made by democratic government, and a tremendous increase in the number of meetings that he has to address, speeches that he has to make, and criticisms that he has to meet. All these things have grown prodigiously during my lifetime, and they mean a tremendous strain on Ministers. In the meanwhile the system is practically as it was; very little has been done to reorganise the administrative machine to sec whether something cannot be done. Various suggestions have been made, which would be well worth of consideration, for delegating some of the power from one Minister to another and forming some kind of inner circle of Ministers-just as the War Cabinets that we have found it necessary to create in each of these great wars have been formed—consisting primarily and chiefly of Ministers, whose business will be to direct the policy of the country rather than to deal with departmental difficulties.

All these things seem to me to require the most careful consideration. Many people much more able to speak on the matter than I can pretend to be have drawn public attention to these things. I think the time has come when a more serious attempt should be made to investigate what could be done to improve the administrative material. So far I agree entirely with the noble Lord, and I venture to hope that this Government, though evidently they can do very little while the war is going on to investigate things, for they are and ought to be fully employed with the war and nothing else, may yet find some means, by appointing a Committee or some body of that kind, really to go into the matter and formulate something that must be cone, but it must be a Committee which really intends that some reform shall be carried through. I am certain that we are running a very serious risk in preserving the old machine, which was perhaps sufficient for dealing with the business of the country in years gone by but which is now quite out of date and requires a great reform of some kind in order to enable it to discharge the very multifarious duties that now fall upon any Government of any country.


My Lords, I think every one of us will agree that the noble Lord has called attention to one of the most important matters affecting the efficiency of public business, and I am sure we all feel grateful to him for his presentation of it. One thing which the noble Viscount has just said impressed me from my own experience as perhaps the most important thing of all. There are cases, we all know them, where the Minister is we may say run by his permanent officials. My feeling is that where that has been the case it has not been the fault of the permanent officials. It has been mostly because there has been in office a man either insufficiently experienced, or one who is either timid or, as sometimes has happened, actually unfit. If he cannot make up his mind himself, somebody has to make it up for him.

I know quite a number of cases in which that is a fair and accurate description of the position and of course it is not right in those cases to blame the official. I can also call to mind other cases quite in accord with the ones cited by the noble Viscount, in which the Minister, having a policy and understanding it, has found that the chief secretary is not personally in accord with that policy, but when the Minister has made it clear that with the consent of his colleagues that is the policy to be pursued, the civil servants have combined with complete loyalty to make that policy efficient. For all that, I think that when there is a justifiable complaint that in peace-time permanent officials have run a Ministry, it is more often the fault of the Minister than of the permanent official. That emphasizes the importance of the observations which the noble Lord made in his opening speech about the frequent changes of Ministers. In any inquiry into this matter I am sure that cognisance must be taken of that fact.

The part of the noble Lord's speech about the training, selection and outlook of the permanent civil servant was a graphic and, I think myself, on the whole, an accurate description. It is quite clear that the tradition and habit of the permanent civil servant is not adaptable to the rapid action and decision that is called for in war-time. We all know cases in which the permanent staff, the network of arrangements and the complexity of forms must cripple, and does cripple, rapid action. In most of those cases in my opinion it is the business of the Minister in charge to cut the tapes. Many a time during the last war when rapid action was called for, it was necessary, if I may use the expression, to "cut the cackle" and get immediate and rapid decision and action. That, of course, is all against the tradition of the Civil Service, but I think it is fair to say that in the main civil servants, like the rest of us, when they have got to, do rise to the occasion. Nevertheless, it is true—and I think the noble Lord has dealt with one of the most urgent matters of the day—that the constitution and the habitual methods of work of our permanent Civil Service are not adapted to the rapid discharge of responsibilities called for in wartime. For myself I do not think we have yet found the right way of doing it.

In the last war we had to improvise as we went along—I had the honour of the company and help of the noble Lord for some of the time—and it usually-happened that the Civil Service became the administrative staff but that the decisions as to the methods of carrying out policy were the result of daily conferences between the Minister and the chief business men and others in the Department. I do not agree that inquiry into this business should be postponed until the end of the war. I think we cannot improve our methods too soon. The Government should act in this respect now. We all know that there are instances which justify very abundantly the general cases made by the noble Lord. On the other hand there are quite a number of cases where rapid and efficient action has been obtained; but I do not think we have yet got the proper method of bringing in, at a time of emergency such as you have in war-time, the experience and methods of work of the great business men and industrialists to help us in association with the Civil Service. In other words we have not yet developed the right kind of administrative machine. I would like the Government to take action on this now, and if the noble Lord's Motion leads to some action of that kind I believe he will have rendered a very real service to the more efficient prosecution of the war.


My Lords, when I read on the Order Paper the Notice of this Motion, I hoped there would be many members of your Lordships' House who would feel, like myself, that it was an occasion when, rightly, one should attend the sitting of the House, listen with attention and thought to what was being said and, if ideas should come to one's mind after listening to the speeches, make some contribution to the debate. It is a subject the importance of which should make every member of your Lordships' House realise that if he sincerely felt he could make some contribution, he should do so. The subject of this debate strikes at the whole principle of the government of this country. It is a subject upon which all members of your Lordships' House who have had experience of working in association with civil servants in administration will have formed some very definite ideas.

To the noble Lord, Lord Perry, the mover of this Motion, I feel that the House should be much indebted. The Motion comes from one whose achievements in life justify his claim in addressing your Lordships' House. I refer to his own personal achievements and his experience in connection with administration and therefore with civil servants. It is a wide experience that he has had, and anyone like myself must listen with attention to the deductions which that great experience has led him to make. Apart from that, your Lordships, I am sure, will agree with me that the careful preparation of the presentation to your Lordships' House of his reflections about this matter signifies the deep interest which he feels in the subject. I regret that more members of your Lordships' House have not decided to attend and take part in this discussion. The noble Lords, Viscount Cecil and Lord Addison, who have just spoken have urged the claim that it is a subject which should receive the thought of the Government, and that there should be a decision to take some action with regard to some possible revision of the traditional practice.

In the course of his speech Lord Perry emphasized the position of civil servants. I was particularly impressed with one phrase: that they take no responsibility and no risk. He added that promotion depended upon death. The responsibility of civil servants in the administration of this country certainly qualifies the method by which they begin their careers as being the subject of a very definitely decided method as best suited to the circumstances of the day. In your Lordships' House in the year, at least, before the outbreak of this war, there were several debates in which it was urged that there should be a Ministry of Supply. The then Government of the day resisted the demand and resisted the arguments advanced in justification of it. The House must now admit that Lord Strabolgi, in the insistence of his frequent urgings, has been justified by events.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, made a very sweeping statement which seemed to suggest that business men in the main, who gave their time, service and experience in the last war, were not a success, and he insinuated that civil servants were entitled to the greater credit for what had been done. There then sat in this House Lord Inverforth, who, I think, in the direction of the Ministry of Supply, achieved a success which exceeded what had been achieved until he took it over. Certainly it is true that he put at the heads of all departments making decisions men who would be described as business men, taking responsibility from civil servants and placing it in their hands. Unfortunately, at this late stage of the war, insinuations have been made as to the inadequacy of preparations made in early days of the war, but there are now at the heads of most of the Departments of a commercial character—such as the Ministry of Munitions and the Ministry of Food—men who are neither career politicians nor civil servants. They are certainly such men as would satisfy any member of your Lordships' House who would wish to see rapid action achieved, that it would be achieved under their direction.

A quotation was made by Lord Perry from a speech in another place delivered, I believe, by Sir Patrick Harmon, in which he emphasized that there was a danger of the powers of Parliament being displaced. Doubtless it was opportune, but it was, as Sir Patrick Hannon said, not his intention at that moment to prosecute it. But the point there emphasized concerned rapidity of decision. I chanced to spend last evening with a distinguished civil servant who enjoys a very responsible position at the present moment. This subject was discussed—tardiness of decision. Examination was made whether under other systems of government decisions were more rapid. The suggestion was made that if they were it was probable that they were frequently less good, and that a rapid decision that was wrong was worse than no decision at all, or at least a decision which had come after long delay. The point really seems to revolve on what is the aim of the Civil Service. While on that rather academic question, one could hardly expect a Government occupied in a great war to give much thought to changing methods by which the government of the country shall be carried out, and I would not have ventured to urge it had not the two noble Lords who have just spoken argued that it was a proper matter to receive the consideration of the Government.

Lord Perry in his opening speech gave a catalogue of rapid changes in Ministers. Under our constitutional system we cannot avoid changes of Ministers. I regret that he did not include a reference to one Department the frequent change in the head of which has caused some dismay to the commercial community of this country, in view of the importance of our export trade at the present time. It is certainly regrettable and disappointing to industrialists who conduct our export trade that the head of the Department of Overseas Trade should have been changed so frequently. In making that remark I make no aspersion on the achievements of any of those who have filled that post in the past, nor do I make any reference to the present holder of it; but among the traders of the country there is some disquiet as to whether the consistent policy which foreign trade merits can be followed when the Minister responsible is so frequently changed. I hope that the noble Viscount who is to reply on 'behalf of the Government will make a note of that point.

Regarding this as an academic debate, as it is, the important point for consideration is that of the intake to the Civil Service. There are such questions as the interchange between the Diplomatic Service and the Consular Service, and questions affecting all the other Departments of State which have to be fed by a constant inflow of candidates. The only justification for spending time at this juncture in considering such a question is that the intake into the Civil Service will determine the future interpretation of what Parliament in its wisdom decides should be the relationship between the Civil Service and those holding political responsibility. The noble Lord, Lord Perry, will have rendered a service in bringing this question forward if the noble Viscount who is to reply for the Government can give us hope that this matter will be examined.


My Lords, the two speeches in this debate with which I have found myself most in sympathy are those delivered by the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, and by the noble Lord, Lord Addison, and I am grateful to them that, without any summons from myself, they should have found it possible to return to the House. I think that it is fundamental to the correct understanding of this question to appreciate what is the part which the Civil Service is trained and called upon to perform and what is the part for the correct discharge of which the political Minister is responsible. I am speaking for the moment of times of peace. If, as my noble friend Lord Addison said, there is a Minister in office who is really not discharging his proper function, it may well be that the permanent Civil Service perforce takes upon itself larger responsibilities that those properly belonging to it. That, however, is not a reason for blaming the Civil Service; it is really due to the fact that the office in question is not being in the circumstances adequately administered by its political chief. There are many members of this House, and many among those now present, who have a large experience of many offices; and I am bound to say, from an experience of my own, which now must count as fairly - considerable, of Ministerial office in many capacities, that I do not recognise as true the proposition that the members of the Civil Service direct in great matters of policy. On the contrary, our whole Cabinet system, the responsibility of a Minister to his chief, the Prime Minister, and above all the responsibilities of political Ministers to the House of Commons, and I hope also to the House of Lords, make that proposition, to my way of thinking, quite unjustified.

My noble friend Lord Perry, in his very carefully prepared speech, has conveyed to me the impression that from his recent experience—and we are most grateful for the help that he has given to the public service in this time of war—he has not been satisfied with what he has found. I should like first of all to say, therefore, that none of us forgets the immense services which he rendered to the country twenty-five years ago, when we were all younger, and when in the Ministry of Munitions and in the Ministry of Food his advice and his help were very greatly valued and appreciated on all hands. But what is the conception which my noble friend has of the part which a business adviser in time of war should play in a Government Department? I listened carefully, but he did not, I think, very precisely describe what should be done. I well understood—because he had very carefully prepared his sarcasms—that he has the very greatest contempt for the permanent Service now operating in this country. If I caught him aright, I think one of his sentences was that nothing has been done by civil servants since the war began which was worth while. He will excuse me if I use equal plainness in saving that I believe that proposition to be both ungenerous and unfair.

But let us examine what it is that my noble friend wishes should be done. I cannot help feeling that he imagines that there can be an organisation of business men within a Ministry which will reach great decisions and have them carried out quite independently of the other authorities of the Department, and that by that means speed and certainty are going to be secured in business matters. He said with obvious contempt in the course of his speech that a civil servant has never bought anything, has never sold anything, and has never had anything at risk. In some respects I think that I share the advantage of my noble friend, in that I have had a certain contact with business as well as a certain contact with the Civil Service. For a great many years I found myself occupied because business men—and often very important business men — thought it worth while to consult me professionally. Sometimes it was because they were not quite sure what was the meaning of the contract they had made; sometimes it was because they did not know what rights they had to the delivery of goods; and a whole series of necessarily complicated questions had to be discussed. I quite appreciate that business men do not come to advisers in the Temple when things are going well, but I really cannot accept the proposition that all that it is necessary to do in order to correct the shortcomings and futilities of the Civil Service is to put in positions of undisputed authority a number of business men. What my noble friend Lord Cecil of Chelwood said about the experience in the last war was not unjustified, although of course there were many striking instances to the contrary.

I hope that my noble friend will allow me to point out that it is really quite impossible for even the most distinguished business man in an advisory capacity to decide and execute, or immediately have executed, very large and important matters of policy, which are extremely likely to involve other Departments and to raise a social question, or a political question, or a diplomatic question, or a currency question as well as the particular aspect of the matter in which we are so grateful for business advice. I hardly think that sufficient attention has been given to the special dispositions which have been made, and necessarily were made, in preparation for war as distinguished from the ordinary arrangements of the Civil Service. Some noble Lords know that very well. Let me tell my noble friend that to my own knowledge, before the war was imminent, there was intense work being done in respect of every single great Department of State in order to try and judge beforehand what additional help would be needed and from what sources it could best be got. In many cases a distinguished business man or a number of distinguished business men were approached long before the war began for the purpose of securing that if this pressure came upon some great Department we should have the benefit of their help. It was not improvisation at all; it was a matter which was gone through Department by Department.

But I would be the first to recognise that there is of course a difference of outlook in the business man and in the civil servant. Undoubtedly there is. I hope I may be forgiven if I point out this: the business man, the man who is conducting successfully some great enterprise, is really not concerned if in the course of the half-year some of his adventures turn out very badly as long as he has got some other adventures which turn out very well, and which result at the end of the six months in his showing a big profit. You may have some great enterprise where great extravagance has been shown—it may be in acquiring a site or in other ways—but on the other hand great profits have been made by carrying on sales. Now all that the business man need fear, and that which he very properly struggles to avoid, is that at the end of the six months, or at the end of the year, when he meets his shareholders, who are the only people concerned, he is able to show that his business has been carried on with great energy and presents a substantial profit. Thereupon the shareholders are naturally pleased, they receive a dividend, and everybody is happy.

Does anybody suppose that that is what happens in a Government Department? Why, you have only to make two or three mistakes, serious mistakes, in judgment in a Government Department and be called to book for it in Parliament, and your efforts are ruined. It is no answer to say. "Oh yes, I know, I did not do very wisely about that; I know there was a waste there, but just look at the success which we had in something else." The essence of Parliamentary Government, and rightly so, is that a democracy insists on examining every transaction as it goes along and challenges it minutely through the Comptroller and Auditor-General, through the Estimates Committee and through the committees on waste. I do not think that the distinction is always quite appreciated. The contribution that is being made by so many business men is most valuable; I am happy to think that the extremely friendly and confidential terms which exist between Ministers and civil servants in many Departments show that the system is working satisfactorily.

There is obviously a very great distinction between what the business man contributes and the part that is played by the Civil Service, but I believe myself that the key of this whole business is what was emphasized by my noble friend Lord Cecil of Chelwood and by Lord Addison—namely, that you must not hold the Civil Service responsible for making great decisions. The decisions are the decisions of Ministers, and it is the Minister who takes the responsibility. I was very glad indeed to hear from both Lord Cecil and Lord Addison an acknowledgment that these distinguished civil servants are people who, once they have got their definite directions in matters of policy, undertake and carry through what has to be done without the smallest partisanship. If you consulted those who held posts in a Labour Government in this country, I am sure they would testify to a man that the service of the civil servants has been given without the slightest question as to whether the change of policy was one which they approved or not. It may have been justified—the point is that the civil servant is trying to carry out the policy which his political chief and the Government decide. That I believe to be a true doctrine.

Now what has happened since the war began? Not only have we already made very considerable arrangements to secure the services, which we value so much, of experts and business men in all directions, and of scientific men too, but there were, and there are, in operation special directions to the Civil Service aiming at the purpose of reducing delay and securing the effective carrying out of decisions as rapidly as possible. The circular in its terms may be confidential and therefore I had better not refer to it, but I know-that it is required in every Department that every possible step should be taken to avoid an administrative delay, to accelerate decisions and to expedite executive action. And not only that, but it goes on in detail to describe how in many ways this might be done. For example, it is pointed out that although a series of considerations may necessitate the passing of papers from one room to another, wherever possible there ought to be a conference in which you get together those whose business it is to advise, as well as, of course, someone representing the political chief, and the decisions should be reached as far as possible there and then. I am quite certain that the method which was followed, for example, in the Treasury is one which does very much hasten and accelerate business. I could give many other examples.

It may well be that in spite of all that there is a great deal that could be improved. The only point in which I do not agree on this occasion with the noble Lord, Lord Addison, is that I do not think it would be a practicable step to institute an exhaustive inquiry into all these matters in the middle of the war. Anyone who knows how hard civil servants I are now worked will realise what a difficulty there would be in getting the necessary information by means of a Commission sitting a reasonable number of hours a day. The same is true, I think, of Ministers, and therefore I do not think that is in fact a practical suggestion. But that we should study perfectly impartially the way in which the machine is working—civil servants, special advisers, Ministers of the Crown and so on—I would most willingly believe is a wise piece of advice. Of course I am not giving any Government assurance on the matter, but I appreciate entirely that argument as it was put by my noble friend Lord Cecil. I hope I shall have Lord Perry's forgiveness if I say what I feel bound to say. He has used very hard language about the Civil Service. I have had the advantage of serving in many offices, and I really think I should not be doing justice if I did not remind my noble friend of some of the expressions he thought fit to employ. If I heard him rightly, he described the Civil Service as" seething mass of gentlemen of leisure." He described them even now, to-day in war-time, as "gentlemen whose one desire was that nothing should disturb their serenity." He accused them of leisurely procrastination, and he informed us that in his view nothing had been done by the Civil Service since the war began which was worth while. I am bound to say, moderating my language as I must, that I do not think these phrases and judgments are justified. It may be that the noble Lord, in reflecting on what he was going to say before writing it down, did not appreciate how wounding these observations are.

I happen to have been political head of a Department in which civil servants have worked all night. I know of men who have come out at all possible hours to try and give an extra bit of help in the war, which is their war as well as our war. I do not think it is right that I, standing here for the Government, should not reply with equal definiteness and say that such reflections are not called for. We are not engaged in elevating the virtues of business men at the expense of civil servants. We want to do right all the way round. I certainly think that in the very nature of the case the life of a civil servant is one in which he has not got a prime responsibility. I am willing to admit that in time of peace there may be occasions when business standards are sadly neglected, but nothing that I know, nothing that any Minister on that Bench knows, of the services of the men who are working for us now would justify so contemptuous a criticism. I hope, therefore, this debate may do good. I regret that the noble Lord felt so dissatisfied as the result of his experience of the working of the Service in recent times. He has, at any rate, this satisfaction, that the head of the Ministry from which he recently resigned is a man who, whatever else, is a business man, and I should be surprised If, as a business man, he insisted on supervising every detail of his great office and if he did not insist on deciding matters of policy himself. I have spoken with warmth on this matter because I do not think it is right that such an attack should be made on people who are doing a long day's work to-day—a great mass of silent men and women who, as many of us know, are striving with all their might to contribute what they can to winning the war.


My Lords, before asking leave to withdraw my Motion, T should like to make one comment on the rebukes which have been addressed to me by the noble Viscount. In my remarks concerning business men I was certainly not referring to myself, except that one lives one's own life and looks at the world through one's own eyes, and it is impossible to get objective information in any other way that I know of. It is not very pleasant, of course, to listen to the rebukes which I very likely deserved, and I leave myself in your Lordships' hands about them. If I have done nothing else, I am very glad to have disturbed the serenity of a Cabinet Minister to the extent of rousing his indignation and getting him, I hope, to express indignation elsewhere than here. I believe that every speech that has been made, except that of the noble Viscount, has really admitted the truth of the main claim I made. The noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, said business men were not successful in the last war, and he invited me to consult the records. I know of only two records, and as they were both written by civil servants or quasi-civil servants I rather think they might be biased. I wish to assure your Lordships that there was nothing personal at all in the case I tried to make against the Civil Service or that branch of government as we have it at present, and I am extremely I sorry that personalities have been introduced because I tried to refrain from them. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.