The Civil Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:16 pm on 24th May 2000.

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Photo of The Earl of Longford The Earl of Longford Labour 7:16 pm, 24th May 2000

My Lords, I worked for three years as a bottle washer for the great Lord Beveridge when he was drawing up his famous report and afterwards. I used to hold his coat while he made many speeches to audiences. He always began in this way:

"I rise to greet you and after that, with your permission, I will remain seated".

Today I am afraid that I have to go a little further and not rise to greet your Lordships. I ask your permission to remain seated, for reasons which I hope are temporary.

I never cease to marvel at the mental and moral adjustments made by the great civil servants--referred to so ably by previous speakers--who have made invaluable contributions to the country. We are told in the Gospels that we must not serve two masters, but civil servants have to serve at least two masters. They have to carry out the orders of the Government and of Ministers, and they have to follow their own consciences. So they are following two masters. It is no good questioning them too closely about this; one will never get an answer. It is like asking lawyers, "How do you defend a man when you know he is guilty?"; one will never get an answer.

Perhaps I may offer a few reflections based on varied if slightly out-of-date experience. I served in four Ministries. I joined the Attlee government of 1945-51; I was Secretary for War; Minister for the British zone of Germany; Minister for Civil Aviation; and First Lord of the Admiralty. I was never quite in the Cabinet--that came a bit later--but I served in all those government departments.

I had never heard of any special advisers in those days, but when Sir Winston Churchill arrived, of course, his special advisers were popped into the Cabinet. That is rather a different approach. My dear old friend, Professor Lindemann, the Lord Cherwell--one of Sir Winston's closest friends--became a Cabinet Minister. That was one way of dealing with it.

However, leaving that aside, in the years when I was in those offices and later when I was Leader of the House and in the Cabinet, it never occurred to me that civil servants voted and actually had political instincts at all. They were just there to carry out policy. Only the other day I discovered that a lady who was a dear, close secretary of mine in the Cabinet when I was Leader of the House was in fact voting Conservative at the same time. It never struck me at the time, but of course they have to live a schizophrenic life: that is what we expect of them. On the whole, it works as well as, or perhaps even better than, anything else would.

Following my time as a Minister in the Foreign Office, I met Dr Adenhauer, at that time the Chancellor of the Federal German Republic. He begged me to go back to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary (Clem Attlee and Ernest Bevin) and urge them to join the Franco-German iron and steel pact from the beginning. That would have brought us into Europe straight away. I was laughed to scorn and shown a document from a high Treasury official saying that if we tied ourselves to Europe we were tying ourselves to a corpse. That was the Treasury line, which I do not think was very different from the Foreign Office line in 1950.

By the time I was Leader of the House here in 1964 I was being urged by the Foreign Office to go further, further and further towards Europe--further than the government line. The people in the Foreign Office were thinking hard: they were very clever people and they were gradually going to have a definite influence. Who can say what the influence amounted to?

Again, turning to the Home Office and penal affairs, with which I was much concerned, how much influence has the Home Office exerted? It is impossible to say. There have been various ups and down in penal policy for many years, with a kind of progressive tendency towards reducing the number of prisoners. Then when Mr Michael Howard became Home Secretary the prison population went up in four years by 50 per cent. Maybe the Civil Service influenced that, I do not know and I do not think that anybody knows.

All that can be said is that over those years the Civil Service promoted a lot of criminological research, and certainly they helped in the movement which led to the greatest improvement in our time in the life of this country: the abolition of capital punishment. I think the Civil Service must have played its part in promoting thought and discussion on this matter.

So today, have I got anything to recommend at all? As to special advisers, I have never had much to do with them. The only time I was at all close to the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, when I was with him on one occasion in the Cabinet Office. At a critical moment he suddenly said: "Send for Gerald and Marcia". He meant Gerald Kaufmann and Marcia Williams. They were called in. I do not know whether they would be called special advisers, or what they would be called, but when it came to a crisis they were the people that Harold Wilson sent for.

We see all these special advisers, of one sort or another, and we have had all the figures quoted today. There has been a tremendous expansion. Of course I am biased very much in favour of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. That is for two reasons. I am now honoured to think that he and I are linked in a family sense. Also, he is a supreme example of how a person can face physical handicap--in his case heroically received, while others of us have received it in a far from heroic fashion. We look up to him as a "senior prefect" and therefore I am inclined to go along with everything that he says.

I must add a further thought. What we have benefited from in recent years have been the inspectors who play a particular part in the penal realm, in which I have operated for a long time. We owe an enormous debt to Stephen Tumim and the present David Ramsbotham. These two are great men. They are officially appointed but they are independent. Their job is to criticise, and I hope that, whatever arrangement we make in future, we preserve the essence of our Civil Service, and that we shall preserve more and more the arrangements to make it possible to have a critical spirit.