Tuesday 10 March 2020: Meeting of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for a hearing on the work of the Cabinet Secretary and the Cabinet Office.
Q: If a Permanent Secretary, is concerned about a ministerial decision they can ask for a written ministerial direction. What course of action is open to a Permanent Secretary who is unhappy with the conduct or behaviour of their line manager?
A: It would depend how serious those concerns are. I would normally expect a Permanent Secretary and their line manager to make their best endeavours to work effectively together to lead in partnership. That is the case in the overwhelming majority of the cases and the partnerships are extremely effective. If there are tensions—and
Government is challenging and deals with difficult issues—one would normally expect those to be resolved between them, in private if they possibly can. If for some reason they were not able to do so, I might be asked to become involved. It is only in very rare cases that one would expect that to be the case. Generally these relationships are good. They are often challenging. They are conducted with candour and courtesy in private. It is that partnership that means that Ministers can ensure the Civil Service is delivering its priorities.
Q: What is the role of the Cabinet Secretary in dealing with such issues.
A: If a difficulty arises it is important to restore harmony. It is to try to ensure that the relationship is productive. Obviously if there are concerns, if a Line manager has concerns about the effectiveness of the top team, whether the Department is in the right shape, again I would expect the Permanent Secretary to try to resolve
those and ensure that the Department is running the way the line manager wants the Department to run. My role, if there were a point of tension, would be to try to address any concerns and help the two of them work through those together. Of course, if that is not possible, we would have to consider alternative courses of action.
Q: In your endeavours to restore harmony in a St Francis of Assisi way, there is no formal process, is there?
A: There is not a formal process unless an issue has become formal because there are formal complaints about behaviour and so on. As in any big organisation, the process is essentially to try to ensure that the top team, political and professional, are working effectively together and that the professional Civil Service is delivering to the expectations of the agenda of Ministers.
Q: Further on that, what is formal process?
A: For example, if there were a complaint about conduct against an official, a special adviser, a Minister, by anyone, that complaint would be investigated, just as it is in any big organisation if it were about bullying or harassment or discrimination or behaviour, and the appropriateaction taken. The appropriate action will often simply be some kind of behavioural intervention, giving someone some advice or coaching on the impact they might be having on others. Obviously, if it is more serious and there is a matter of conduct, whether that is by an official or a special adviser or Minister, there are formal processes set out in the codes that we would follow. Those would only be in the rarest and most difficult cases, obviously.
Q: How does it work in relation to the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government because he/she is accountable to the first Minister of Scotland?
A: Essentially the process is the same. The difference is that it is the First Minister of the Scottish Government makes the final decision as opposed to the Prime Minister. The process and the relationship between me and them, I am still their reporting officer, so the First Minister in those circumstances is playing both the role of the Secretary of State and taking the final decision that the Prime Minister would take in the other jobs.
Q: For clarity, you are the line manager of the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government.
A: Yes. But I am not of the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service because that is separate entity from the GB Civil Service.
Q: How does that work in the context of the Scottish Government, for example, pursuing diametrically opposed policies and positions from the UK Government? How can you appraise the Permanent Secretary on that basis for carrying out policies and positions that are contrary to the ones that you have been instructed to carry out on behalf
of the UK Government?
A: It is a great question. The job is to carry out the policies of whichever Government you are working for. If the general election result had gone the other way, we would be carrying out a very different programme from the one that we are carrying out now, and that is the job of the permanent Civil Service. My job is to make a professional assessment of the professional performance of the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government in pursuing the policies of the Government, ensuring that we are operating in the most collaborative way that we can and assessing their contribution as senior leaders in the broader Civil Service.
Q: If the Scottish Government had indeed managed to stop Brexit, you would have given the Permanent Secretary a five-star rating for achieving that?
A: That would have rather depended on whether the Scottish Government claimed the credit themselves or gave the credit to the Civil Service.
Q: In the context now of where devolved settlements have reached, with devolved Administrations pursuing diametrically opposed policies to the UK Government, and often being the harshest critics of the UK Government and therefore their fellow civil servants, that it is sustainable to continue with the one Civil Service model?
A: I think it is important that we do, because this Government’s position is that the Union is an important institution. Of course there are tensions and of course there are discussions. There are different human resource policies in Scotland, but we work through those and it continues to be a very important aspect of the Civil Service, having one Civil Service reaching right across the United Kingdom.
Q: Is there anything specific you think that would strengthen it, actions that you are taking or could take?
A: Yes. I think a greater presence, particularly a greater presence in the devolved Administrations, and we are doing that. As you know, we have a big office opening in Edinburgh. The hub process. A greater distribution of civil servants from Whitehall into the devolved Administrations is going to be very important, and that is on
the agenda and we are working that through as we go forward. That is the obvious step.
There ought to be—and this will be a political decision—a conversation about the policies. If this Government’s position is that we need to strengthen the Union, we need to have the conversations. Rather than just ask, “How does that policy look through a devolved Administration’s lens?” we should be thinking about policies that specifically strengthen that Union. We are not quite there yet but that is the role of the Civil Service to start generating those things. That depends on the creativity and the imagination of the civil servants across working in tandem with our Scottish colleagues.
Q: That is a challenge when the devolved Administration policy is diametrically the opposite.(David Mundell)
A: Of course it is a challenge, but the one Civil Service is one thing that is across the United Kingdom and I think that should stay and we should reinforce it.
Q: Are there still secondments from, for example, the Welsh or Scottish Governments to Whitehall and vice versa?
A: Yes, there are. We do it annually. We do it annually and the intent is to beef that up and do more of it. I would say at the moment we are not satisfied that we have enough of the civil servants that look back to Whitehall in the devolved Administrations. We want to strengthen that in the next phase and that is part of our plan.
Q: Are there still weekly meetings of Permanent Secretaries?
A: Yes, more than. We have a weekly meeting of all the heads of Department and sometimes every couple of weeks of the wider group of Permanent Secretaries, including some of the specialists.
Q: Presumably, at those meetings delivery of Government policy is discussed?
A: Yes, we will brief on what has happened in Cabinet, we will talk about the main issues of the day. We will often talk about Civil Service capability or some of the main issues.
Q: Does the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government attend the meetings?
A: Yes, usually. If there are areas of policies that are delicate in that sense, we must not put them in a position where they feel conflicted and we will avoid those conversations and have those in a slightly different group. One has to just manage these things. It was particularly the case during the 2014 referendum that we had to be very careful about that. If we are talking about domestic policies, for example, about social care or homelessness or whatever it might be, even if those issues are essentially Whitehall, it is only focused on England or maybe England and Wales in some cases, it is useful to have the insight and the input from the other devolved Administrations because, in those areas of policy, social policy, we are often working in partnership rather than in the hierarchical sense. We make a judgment case by case.
Q: In cases of sensitivity you convene separate meetings of Permanent Secretaries?
A: Yes, but that in a sense is no different from having a meeting on Coronavirus, for example, which has the Permanent Secretaries who are relevant to that particular issue, or something on national security or something on an economic issue. We do not make everyone come to everything. We tend to use those full meetings, as most
big organisations would, as essentially information-sharing meetings.
Q: Is the head of the Northern Ireland service invited to those meetings?
Q: In that regard you treat it as one Civil Service but you have a separate line-management structure for them. They are a separate service. Therefore, why is it so important that Wales and Scotland are not a separate service if you are able to treat it as one union in some regards with Northern Ireland? Sir John, you mentioned that it was important to the Union. The biggest threat to the Union is Northern Ireland leaving, not Scotland and Wales in my view, if “threat” is the right word. Why not allow the Scottish Civil Service and the Welsh Civil Service to have the same kind of status as the Northern Ireland Civil Service?
A: It is essentially a historical issue. The Irish Civil Service was separate; the Northern Ireland Civil Service then continued to be separate after 1922. It has arisen for no better reason, in a sense, than the circumstances at the time. What we endeavour to do is bind the Northern Ireland Civil Service into the broader Civil Service to
ensure that they have access to the broader talent pool and thinking and so on and create that sense of collegiality across the entire UK. There are many issues in which we do govern as a UK as a whole. Of course some domestic policy issues are devolved, very significant ones. In that sense, parts of Whitehall are just governing England. Certain Departments in Whitehall are just responsible for those services and issues in England. Other Departments in very significant areas of work, including the area
that I spent most of my career in, are UK-wide. One of the jobs of a Cabinet Secretary anyway is to try to see the connections between all these things. One of my obsessions is to try to ensure that we look horizontally as effectively as we tend to look vertically. Anything that increased the vertical boundaries, sharpened the vertical boundaries and made it harder to work collaboratively across the United Kingdom on some of the issues that affect us all, I think would be an error.
Q: Does the Northern Ireland service having this historical separation make it harder?
A: In some areas it probably does. We have to make a greater effort. I think we do it well but we have to make a greater effort to ensure that they are properly brought into the collaborative enterprise. Increasingly, we are deploying the commercial expertise or the technical expertise or the project expertise right across, including into the Northern Ireland Civil Service and that is strengthening the bond, so I would go the other way.
Q: With the Scottish service, say a relationship difficulty occurred that was similar to the relationship that has been alleged in the Home Department with the Home Secretary would the Permanent Secretary report to the Cabinet Secretary? Say if the First Minister of Scotland was misbehaving in any particular way?
A: Essentially exactly the same principles and so on would apply. In the end, as I said, one would always hope that it was possible for these things to be resolved between the Permanent Secretary and their responsible Minister, whether it was the First Minister of Scotland or, as you say, in that hypothetical example, but if necessary the Cabinet Secretary would become involved.
Q: In the recent or longer past, has a Permanent Secretary in Scotland had to report any misbehaviours of their First Minister to you?
A: You will understand, particularly in the light of events this week in the Scottish courts, I have to be very, very careful. All I can say is that the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government certainly in my time and, as I understand, her predecessors and mine have applied exactly the same system that I described to you.
Q: You mentioned earlier that Whitehall was expanding or increasing its footprint in Scotland and I am wondering to back up what was said earlier is that role of the expanded Civil Service, coming out of Whitehall, to support the democratically elected Scottish Government in its manifesto or is it to support the UK Government’s
A: Primarily, it will be the UK Government presence in Scotland but in so doing will, therefore, be cheek by jowl with their colleagues in the Scottish part of the Civil Service. Therefore, relationships will improve and all of that will get better.
Q: It is hard to see relationships improving when one is going in one direction and the other is going in the opposite direction.
A: Might I add a point to that? It is important. Of course there is a different position between the two Governments on the eventual status of Scotland, but in terms of the governance of the United Kingdom. The First Minister of Scotland, is concerned with the good governance of the United Kingdom. Fundamentally, although the policies vary, all of the Governments of the United Kingdom are seeking to pursue policies about the governance of the United Kingdom. The First Minister of Scotland has always been clear that she expects us to support them within the current shevernance arrangements of the UK, even though she obviously has a different view as to the eventual status of those arrangements
Q: You mentioned earlier that you are the reporting officer of the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government, Leslie Evans. Is there anything that she would not report to you or any conversations that she can have in complete privacy with the Scottish Government, with the First Minister, that you would not expect to be privy to?
A: Yes, for example, if they were discussing a policy matter that was entirely within the Scottish Government. The relations have to be relationships of confidence. I do not expect Leslie Evans to be back-briefing me on every conversation she has with the First Minister. All relationships have to have elements of them that are in confidence. That is part of building trust and confidence between people. I would expect Permanent Secretaries across Government to be able to do that with their Minister.
Note: Summarised from the meeting report.