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Ministerial Code - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:23 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Finn Baroness Finn Conservative 3:23 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on securing this debate. However, while we are ostensibly here to debate potential changes to the Ministerial Code, I fear that we are not necessarily debating the right question. The Ministerial Code is already 31 pages long, the code for special advisers is 18. The Civil Service Code fits very neatly on one page on GOV.UK—I find this rather telling.

The real question is: what is holding the Civil Service back from delivering important and badly needed reforms on behalf of democratically elected Ministers and Governments? We have some of the finest civil servants in the world, and many of the best of them tell me just how much they want to see change. But individual excellence does not mean the institution itself is able to implement such reforms.

Government failures are, of course, not always the fault of the civil servants and there are myriad examples of failures caused by Ministers ignoring good advice. But, as Sir Christopher Meyer recently observed, accusations of bullying seem to have become commonplace when Ministers are demanding exacting standards, being direct or even disagreeing with the advice provided.

No sane Minister would want to go without at least receiving the best advice, even if they choose not to follow it. Civil servants should give robust advice and be resilient enough to make greater use of written directions, which enable them to air their concerns about a policy. But a Minister also has a right to expect accurate advice. A report into the row over the Windrush scandal, which led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, found that Home Office officials had provided her with the wrong information and then failed to clear up the problem. The internal report, which demonstrated that civil servants had “not supported” her, was inexplicably delayed in its publication.

Some of those admonished for poor performance take shelter under an accusation of bullying—indeed, such accusations can even constitute a form of bullying themselves. As there is no legal definition of bullying, the whole area risks becoming entirely subjective. Being banned from a meeting or cut out of key copy list for correspondence was standard treatment when I was a special adviser in government. Would the treatment of Mr Weisel in “Yes, Minister” constitute bullying?

I therefore seek assurance from my noble friend the Minister that there is a fair process of fact finding when such accusations are made. The Civil Service should not be sitting as judge and jury over elected Ministers, and any concerns of alleged bullying must be assessed objectively and not subjectively. Robust challenge of officials by Ministers is not just something that the Civil Service should tolerate, it is critical to ensure good decision making and better policy formation —the other side of the coin called “speaking truth unto power”. We cannot have Ministers being afraid to criticise, in even the mildest form, for fear of reprisal.

Tony Blair, when reflecting on his own experience, remarked that:

“If you had a crisis, there is nothing better than that British system … But when it came to how do you do health service reform or education reform, or … the early battles I had on reforming asylum and immigration policy, I found it frankly just unresponsive.”

Civil servants are too often woefully unprepared for the huge operational burdens placed upon them, and there is an incomprehensible resistance to training them for such responsibilities. When my noble friend Lord Maude was Minister for the Cabinet Office, he proposed that senior civil servants headed for these very big responsibilities should be put through top management courses, typically three months, at top business schools. This is the routine practice of high-performing organisations. He proposed, and it was agreed, that 10 Permanent Secretaries should go through these courses before the 2015 election. And yet by the election, instead of 10 doing three months at Harvard, Stanford and INSEAD, one person had had done a week’s course at IMD in Lausanne—not quite what was intended, and it is difficult to understand the resistance to make a serious investment in such key people.

It is little wonder that Ministers get deeply frustrated when their departmental officials prove incapable of implementing their policies. After all, this is what democratically elected Governments are held to account on. If they fail, it should not be because there is too little capability in the Civil Service to implement or deliver.

It is this that should be the subject of today’s debate: a Civil Service that desperately needs to look again at its capabilities in leading important operational departments—rather than worrying about unnecessary changes to the Ministerial Code.