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The Exit Interviews

Event date: 29 Nov

Last Updated: Thursday, November 29th, 2012

ConservativeHome, together with Edelman, hosted The Exit Interviews on Thursday 29th November.   Here is Paul Goodman’s write up of the event.

The Exit Interviews: We ask four recent Ministers just how much reform Britain’s system of government needs.

Outside the Westminster Village, exit interviews are commonplace.  But within it, they simply don’t happen – least of all after a Prime Minister reshuffles a government.  This being so, ConservativeHome decided yesterday to make up for it.  In a joint event with Edelman, we organised an Exit Interview seminar for four Ministers who recently left office in David Cameron’s bigger-than-expected reworking of his Coalition administration.  I don’t mean to flatter them when by writing that, having heard them give their views, it’s hard to understand why they’re not all still at their departmental desks.

None the less, the Prime Minister’s difficulty was ConservativeHome’s opportunity.  (Heaven forbid that this should regularly be the case.)  The former Ministers were Cheryl Gillan, who served in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Wales; Tim Loughton, an expert on his brief as Children’s Minister in the Education Department, and who left it amidst a blizzard of supportive tweets from children’s organisations; Peter Luff, who held a crucial post at the Ministry of Defence as Procurement Minister, and Nick Herbert, who departed the Government of his own volition after working for two years as Police Minister, serving jointly at the Home Office and the Justice Department.

Fending off competition from the Leveson Report, which was released as they spoke, the panel’s perspectives converged on a question – namely, is our system of government still fit for purpose?  And if not, to what degree does the civil service need reform?  There was a big measure of agreement.  The speakers raised their collective eyebrows at the oddities and quirks of Departmental life.  For example, Loughton explained how he had been asked to approve the purchase of a filing cabinet for £1400 and sacks for £160, but showed the spirit of austerity by nabbing a cabinet for £99 and sacks for £6 from e-bay.

They agreed, too, that the Government arrived with too few special advisers (SPADS).  As Herbert put it, “we were suckered in opposition into thinking that SPADS were a bad development”.  They also agreed that there was no real relationship between Number 10 and Ministers – and not even a pretence of career development – but that its presence was felt none the less.  Luff, himself a SPAD during the 1990s, confessed that he hadn’t appreciated before his appointment “how much Downing Street and the Treasury slow down everything”.  The panel expressed frustration at the way in which the media would claim a problem in the morning and Number 10 would rush out a response later in the day…without consulting the Minister concerned who was, by definition, the expert.

However, there were differences over the civil service.  Herbert’s view was that government is not fit for purpose and that the whole system needs reshaping – including the Whitehall.  He said that government is now too big for the machinery that pertains to serve it, and that questions thus arise about who is responsible for which decisions: he referred specifically to the West Coast main line debacle.  Gillan said that she found the civil service “large and unwieldy, and not of the calibre it was when I first went into government”.  Gillan, the youngest woman Minister in John Major’s Government, pointed out that real heavyweights, such as Lord (Jeffrey) Sterling, were SPADs in the past.

Loughton himself reported that he found parts of the civil service had become politicised.  On the one hand, some officials would advise him how to “stuff the Labour Party”; on the other, some briefed against Ministers, and leaks were “a real problem”.  Luff agreed that more specialist policy advisers and technocrats are needed – the panel nodded when a question to that point was asked – but claimed that “MOD officials are outstandingly good.  They have just been very badly led”.  He was also resistant to some recent changes.  For example, he argued that the new ministerial boards “usurp ministers and usurp democracy.  The board at the MOD had more information and more powers than ministers”.

Gillan cast light on the way in which David Cameron’s Cabinet has worked.  “There were 29 people around the table when I first entered cabinet,” she said, “and now there are 32″, adding that the arrangement lacks “cohesiveness”.  She also pointed out that while no recent administration has seen real Cabinet government, the Coalition has seen a precedent-setting new development – the Quad.  “There is a huge element of negotiation and “Quad” has come into the lexicon,” she said.  Splitting the jobs of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service is, she feels, “unwise”, and she regrets that “it is now known for cabinet ministers to hang their civil servants out to dry”.

In terms of the degree to which the panel believe that change should happen, Herbert was at one end of the discussion (he told the meeting that he is setting up a new body in the new year to examine how the way in which government works might be overhauled) and Luff at the other (he was critical of “the Cabinet Office message that the civil service is a problem”).  None the less, there was, ultimately, significant convergence.  All four speakers agreed that more SPADS should be expert; that their number should rise, that Downing Street should support Ministers more – and that the civil service underestimated the importance of the political and Parliamentary side of their work.  In short, there was all-round support for government with a greater capacity to make policy – and, therefore, to deliver public services more effectively.

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