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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:28 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat 7:28 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak today with so many other noble Lords who are distinguished constitutional experts and, indeed, to hear two such excellent maiden speeches. I generally speak on health, social mobility and wider social issues, but today I wish to make some remarks on constitutional matters with a particular focus on Civil Service reform, which has been hitting the headlines in somewhat lurid terms in recent days, drawing on my near 20 years’ experience as a civil servant and my six years’ experience as chair of a public body.

Some may consider constitutional matters rather dry and technical—dare I say, geeky. I have never seen them in that light. I consider our constitutional settlement, unwritten as it is, as the very cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy. The checks and balances that it contains are essential to ensuring that the Government of the day, whatever their colour, are held to account by a sovereign Parliament. It is what a liberal democracy—something we should all cherish—is all about.

Frankly, I have been troubled by some of the press accounts concerning the proposals for constitutional change coming out of the Conservative Party manifesto that I have been reading. Do not get me wrong: in principle I welcome the constitution, democracy and human rights commission announced in the gracious Speech to look at the broader aspects of the constitution, particularly the relationship between government, Parliament and the judiciary; the very foundation stone of those checks and balances. We move away from that delicate balance at our peril.

Like my noble friend Lord Wallace, I am very apprehensive about any agenda designed to increase the powers of the Executive and to reduce the powers of Parliament to hold them to account and of the courts to conduct judicial reviews. It may be a pesky irritant to a Government with a large majority—in terms of seats, that is, rather than of vote share, given our absurdly unfair voting system, a point made very eloquently by many noble Lords today—but history tells us that shackling the powers of Parliament to create an overmighty Executive is a very dangerous path. I would like to see the powers of Select Committees reviewed and enhanced, not least so that it would be unconstitutional for a Minister, or indeed the Prime Minister, to refuse to appear before a relevant Select Committee when requested to do so. We should also remember that Permanent Secretaries are directly accountable to Parliament as accounting officers, which is one reason why any proposals to get rid of them would be so undesirable.

Civil Service reform is often seen as a niche issue, but enter Mr Dominic Cummings, the great disrupter, whose radical ideas for transforming the way government and the Civil Service operate have caught the headlines, not least his wish to see “weirdos and misfits” whom he clearly prefers to what he terms “confident public school bluffers” and “Oxbridge humanities graduates”. His preferred HR practices are pretty unconventional too, particularly his suggestion that those “wild cards” who feel that they meet his rather unusual person specification bypass formal recruitment processes and get in touch with him direct via email. Other plans are reported to include an overhaul and merger of government departments alongside radical reform of how civil servants are recruited, assessed and rewarded, including them taking regular exams to prove they are up to the job.

In fairness, he does acknowledge that

“there are many brilliant people in the Civil Service,” but Mr Cummings clearly has a very dim view of the system as a whole. Intriguingly, back in 2014 he argued:

“The idea of a Cabinet of over 30 people is a farce; it should be a maximum of probably six or seven people.”

Well, I am looking forward to that one.

In response to this, some former Permanent Secretaries and others have rightly pointed out that it is far better to take people with you when advocating major change than destabilising simply for the sake of it. It is also worth reminding ourselves that the historic values established by Northcote and Trevelyan in 1854—political impartiality, recruitment on merit, integrity and objectivity —remain as relevant today as ever.

Others have also been putting forward interesting ideas, including Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank, which has just published a document called Whitehall Reimagined - A Strengthened Civil Service for a post-Brexit World. I agree with some of its recommendations, but certainly not all of them. Its report also rightly points out that recruitment freezes, below-inflation pay rises and major cuts to budgets have put the system under severe strain in the past 10 years, but I strongly take issue with the partisan proposals for public appointments which fail to recognise the need for appointments which can serve successive Governments.

Civil Service reform is important. From my experience, I have three key conclusions, with which I shall finish. First, civil servants move around far too often, leading to a real loss of expertise and corporate memory. Secondly, ministerial churn is arguably a substantially greater problem. During my six years as chair of Cafcass, I interacted with some 15 Ministers in the sponsor departments, many of whom did not stay in post for longer than a year, or for even less, including at Secretary of State level. No wonder there has been such little progress on family justice reform with that neverending merry-go-round.

Finally, machinery of government changes are a phenomenal waste of time and money and a total distraction from policy delivery. When she responds, will the Minister outline the intended timescale and process for the Civil Service reforms we have been reading about so recently, including the consultative arrangements, as I have a number of specific ideas I would like to feed in?