Ministers and Civil Servants debate

Charles Walker praises the impartiality of the civil service but raises his concerns that the perception of impartiality is damaged by the practice of civil servants clapping in a new Secretary of State for the benefit of TV cameras.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It is a delight to follow the Chairman of our Select Committee, who made an outstanding speech. As a Conservative member of the Committee, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve on that Committee under his even-handed guidance?

When I was a youngster, which was not too long ago, there were two things that made me proud of this country. The first was our history of democracy and Parliament, and the second was our civil service, which was impartial and beyond reproach. It is something in which we can still take huge pride. I believe that, despite what we read weekly in the newspapers about sleaze and corruption, we have a good and decent body politic in this country, both here in Westminster and down the road in Whitehall.

There is a great move towards external appointments, as though they were some panacea for problems afflicting the civil service, but we need to be cautious. I feel that many of the people whom we are bringing in are good, decent, able and talented, but they are not steeped in the ethos of public service. Many people in the senior echelons of the civil service who earn good money could leave the civil service, or could have pursued different careers in the private sector, to earn enormous sums of money. We are so privileged to have those people in public service.

Of course, civil servants are prone to making mistakes. When one makes mistakes with public money it is a serious thing, but in the past two months—or, really, in the past 12 months—we have seen the so-called masters of the universe, who have been earning tens of millions of pounds, making mistakes that have cost the taxpayers of this country hundreds of billions of pounds. That is public money, after all, because it is our money. There are no quick fixes in this matter. For that reason, we need to guard jealously the impartiality and integrity of our civil service.

I promised that I would not speak for long, and I do not intend to, but I was truly concerned by the welcome that the new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform received. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is Peter Mandelson; it is just not right for civil servants to be put in the position of having to perform for the cameras for the 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock news, or the morning bulletins, smiling and clapping a politician in. That is not their role. As I said earlier, I would be equally horrified if they did that for a Conservative Secretary of State. I am disappointed because Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, came before the Committee in, I think, June, and when we raised that concern, he seemed to take it on board—but it has happened again just a few months later. It damages the civil service in the eyes of the public, because the civil service belongs not to a political party but, wonderfully, to all of us. We must not allow it to be diminished in the eyes of the public.

That is all that I have to say. The report is important. I wish that I had been present when we took evidence; I joined the Committee only a month before the report was published. However, I can give an assurance that the Committee continues to do good work in this area, and that there will be more reports, to which I shall be able to make a fuller contribution.

3.12 pm



Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Perception is important. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the continued habit of civil servants in Departments to clap in new Secretaries of State? We saw that only a couple of weeks ago when the foyer of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform filled up with civil servants to clap Lord Mandelson in. That was wrong: it would be wrong if it was a Conservative Secretary of State, and it was wrong—whoever it was—with a Labour Secretary of State. Is that not so?

Dr. Wright
: I can feel myself being drawn into territory into which I do not want to go. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Committee. It is quite proper for departing Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers to be applauded by their staff—it is a perfectly human thing when people have worked together for years. It is a courtesy. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.

Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has persuaded me to go further, and I will give another reason for the example to which he referred. Many things are said about my noble Friend Lord Mandelson—we have to learn to describe him that way—but so many civil servants over the years have told me, “Whatever else you say about Peter Mandelson, he was an outstanding Minister because he gave the kind of leadership to Departments that civil servants demand and respond to.” When they applauded him in, they remembered the kind of leadership they had when he was last there, and were quite pleased to see it return.

Mr. Walker
: I think he was only there for three months, many years ago, so those people have a very good memory. A quiet drink is a courtesy. An engineered applauding-out or applauding-in is exactly that. It was engineered with the media. If Conservatives do it when we get in power—we will get in, eventually, in a year and a half—I will be equally concerned. I was not making a political point.

Dr. Wright
: Perhaps we have different views on courtesy. I undertake to the hon. Gentleman that I will never criticise any incoming Conservative Minister who is gently applauded by his civil servants as a matter of courtesy when he enters office, or even when he leaves, when there may be more occasion for applause.

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