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The pitfalls of Britain's confidential civil service
Samuel Brittan The Financial Times 05/03/10

There have been numerous reports on the organisation of British government in general and the role of the civil service in particular, starting in the modern era with the Fulton report ordered by Harold Wilson soon after he came to office in 1964. They are nearly all unreadable. This is for a very simple reason. They try to analyse the process of taking decisions without any examples of actual problems and policies in a manner reminiscent of management consultants - mainly due to an exaggerated respect for the confidentiality of Whitehall advice.

The latest report, from the Better Government Initiative, is unfortunately no exception. The authors, chaired by the economist Sir Christopher Foster, were mainly academics and former civil servants. The trouble with the findings is not that they are wrong, but that too many of them are obvious and steer clear of sensitive territory. For instance the first recommendation states: "Departments should ensure, and ministers should insist on, consistently high standards of policy formation." Who can be against that?

The main justification for these and many other statements of the blindingly obvious in the report is that they have been too frequently ignored by recent governments. The Poll tax, the Dangerous Dogs Act, the Hunting Act and the story of the Millenium Dome are mentioned as being regarded "by the public and the media" as notorious examples of bad government. There is a hint about prime ministers "taking significant decisions, even to go to war, effectively unchecked by their colleagues". We are reminded that the amount of primary legislation jumped from 1,000 pages in 1960 to 3,400 in 2006. The report refers to "questions" about recent economic management, public expenditure control and financial regulation. But these matters are merely mentioned and not examined.

When I wrote my own study of the Treasury several decades ago I found it impossible to make any sense of it without discussing the substance of economic policy and the role played by various chancellors and their official and unofficial advisers. Some of the same officials who protested most vigorously in the mornings against my revealing "advice given by civil servants to ministers" had the previous evenings discoursed on just that subject. After I made the mistake of sending my draft manuscript to the Treasury, the chancellor of the day was put up by his officials to give me a dressing down and a solemn warning. Yet when the book appeared the same politician - by then an ex-chancellor - wrote in a review that, so far as it dealt with matters of which he had knowledge the book was accurate.

There are two taboo subjects which need to be tackled if there is to be a fundamental improvement in the machinery of government. The first is the confidentiality of advice given by officials to ministers, which is treated as sacrosanct. It suits politicians who are not called to account for rejecting advice for insufficient reasons. But it equally suits officials who are not called to account for the content of the advice. I believe that the Fulton committee originally intended to argue for greater openness but was talked out of it by Wilson. The conventional argument is that civil servants will be reluctant to give their honest opinions if they are liable to be disclosed. It is just as arguable that their advice would be improved if it occasionally had to withstand public scrutiny.

The advice given to Wilson himself in his futile attempt to avoid the 1967 devaluation was a case in point, as was the handling of the exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. While it would be monstrously unfair to blame officials for the Iraq war, the Foreign Office has consistently argued that the UK should normally stand by the US in public and confine critical advice to private occasions. It is hardly surprising that an overenthusiastic Tony Blair should have taken the first part of this advice and ignored the second.

The second subject is the role of the prime minister. This raises deeper issues than can be fully tackled here. But it must at least be observed that the UK has for practical purposes a presidential system without the checks and balances of a formal one. The proposals for more effective parliamentary scrutiny will come to nothing so long as constituency votes are regarded as a way of choosing between the two main party leaders. The result is a span of responsibility for prime ministers that no human should be asked to handle; it is not surprising that they show signs of frayed nerves.

Things could change for the better with a hung parliament, whatever nervous City dealers may think. A hung parliament would be no use if the prime minister was allowed to bide his time and then call a second election when he thought he could win a majority. The Liberals did not prevent this happening on the last few occasions of a hung or nearly hung parliament. Today's Liberal Democrats will have to play their hand a good deal better if they - and the country - are to derive any benefit from such a result this year.

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Contact - samuel dot brittan at ft dot com