Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Public Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:29 pm on 24th October 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bridges Lord Bridges Crossbench 6:29 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I shall address this subject from a specific angle. My concern is not so much with the provision made for supplying essential services, such as health and education, which at present are matters of great public interest; rather, it relates to the changes taking place in the public service itself, particularly the concept of being a public servant--the "ethos", as some have expressed it.

I have a lifelong interest in this subject, having been brought up to believe that the distinctive character of our Civil Service was its unique combination of loyalty to the elected government of the day, its political impartiality, and the control of its activities by a Minister, himself answerable to Parliament.

I was much influenced in these ideas by my father, a well known public servant in his time, who had been Secretary to the Cabinet throughout the Second World War and subsequently Head of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. My own professional life of nearly 40 years was spent in the Diplomatic Service whose ideals were those which I have just described and remain the same.

There have, however, been some interesting and necessary changes and desirable innovations. Take, for example, the role of the political adviser. When serving as a Private Secretary in the Foreign Office in the 1960s I recall the appointment of a political adviser to the then Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart. It was one of the first such appointments, I believe. This adviser was John Harris, later a prominent Member of this House on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

My recollection of this appointment is very positive. The political adviser was helpful both to the Minister and to the department. As a trusted political ally of the Minister, he could discern or readily discover the potential domestic political impact of policies being considered in the department. Armed with this knowledge he could help the department to formulate its policies in such a way as to cause the minimum domestic political problems for the Minister. This was a valuable contribution and an example of the public service and the political world working together positively.

Another relevant recollection derives from my three year stint as a Private Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1972 to 1974. For the first two years the Prime Minister was Sir Edward Heath. I judged his Private Office to be an effective, indeed valuable, part of the government machinery. After Sir Edward's party lost the election in February 1974 we all anticipated that his successor would make some changes in the Private Office. Also, we were conscious that Harold Wilson, when he paid visits to No. 10 in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition, took the trouble to find out who we were and what we did. We were mostly products of politically unacceptable public schools and had all studied deeply unfashionable subjects in ancient universities. So we felt that the Prime Minister would require a rather different team.

When the newly appointed Prime Minister arrived at No. 10 from Buckingham Palace there was a great deal to be done in helping him to form his new administration. Clearly the Queen's Government had to be carried on and we all felt it was our duty to help him. Somewhat to our surprise the incoming Prime Minister made no changes to the Private Office staff and I remained in my post for a further year to complete the expected three year cycle. The impression we had from talking to the Prime Minister's political staff was that he wanted to run his Private Office differently in his second term and thought the existing team would do rather well. I mention all this because there have been some recent changes in the staffing arrangements at No. 10 and I shall comment on those briefly in a moment.

The old system had some advantages. It could be very efficient. The Private Secretaries had a good knowledge of the subjects they handled and an understanding of how the departments they worked with actually performed and functioned. Thus in my own case I knew my parent department quite intimately and also had personal experience of the other subjects I dealt with, which were defence, overseas trade and Northern Ireland. That system also strengthened the role of Ministers in charge of departments, as the Private Secretaries saw it as part of their function to keep Cabinet Ministers properly informed of the Prime Minister's views on current problems.

The present arrangements have changed all that. The former Private Secretaries are now called policy advisers (I do not know what that means) while the executive tasks are entrusted to persons who may have no personal experience of the public service and, for all I know, may be selected on a personal or political basis. I do not say that there is an objection of an ethical kind to these changes but I do suggest that the new model may be a good deal less satisfactory than the old. In particular, there is a potential for weakening the role of Ministers in charge of departments and their responsibility to Parliament. This is slightly worrying and the recent decision regarding Railtrack is perhaps an illustration of the kind of problem which may arise.

An overriding aspect is that these changes have all been made by administrative means without public discussion or examination by Parliament. It is this kind of decision which occasionally makes one wonder whether an unwritten constitution is wise in all circumstances. Thus we can no longer claim, as my father did in a series of lectures and essays delivered after his retirement (now the subject of critical examination by the Departments of Politics in our universities) that the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms had created a Civil Service of a non-political character free from party allegiance. That tradition, I regret, is being somewhat undermined and without regard to the long-term consequences. I hope that the new arrangements can be reviewed with these considerations in mind.