10 years of government blunders and brutal reports: an interview with former PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin
After a decade at the helm of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin is moving on. He tells Beckie Smith about the highlights, lessons and bitter battles
It was the West Coast Main Line fiasco that did it.
Two years after Sir Bernard Jenkin became the inaugural chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, a competition to run one of the UK’s biggest and most lucrative rail services collapsed, in his words, “around the government’s ears”.
In October 2012, the Department for Transport cancelled plans to award the £5bn franchise to FirstGroup, with then-transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin blaming “significant technical flaws” in the bidding process. The government was forced to reimburse companies that had bid, to the tune of £40m.
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Jenkin recalls going to see the head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, and cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood in the wake of the scandal.
“Jeremy Heywood was saying, ‘Well, it’s done now, maybe we should just move on.’ But Bob Kerslake was saying, ‘No, there’s something very fundamentally going wrong here. We need to learn from this.” Jenkin says Kerslake, who had been a local authority chief before moving into central government, challenged the “traditional Whitehall response, which was ‘please, let’s try and keep this very calm and get the media to concentrate on something else’”.
It was at this point that PASC – the forerunner to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – began scrutinising the civil service in earnest, says Jenkin – and it has not stopped since.
A year after the botched competition, PASC published what it described in its own press release as a “brutal report” on the future of the civil service. The wide-ranging report noted tensions between ministers and officials; said a lack of coherent strategy meant plans for incremental change in Whitehall were “bound to fail”; and most brutal of all, said the civil service had the “characteristics of a failing organisation, in which most people know the system is failing, where nobody knows how to address failure, and the leadership are in denial about the scale of the challenge they face”.
But while the report was uncompromising, Jenkin says the point of the inquiry was not to apportion blame. In fact, it criticised the civil service for doing just that, saying a tendency to scapegoat officials rather than learning from failures such as the West Coast Main Line affair underpinned a “general lack of trust and openness” in government.
Instead, he wanted PASC to focus on accountability and learning from failure, he says. “So asking: Well, why did this go wrong? How does it go wrong? What have you learned from this, and how are you going to improve in the future? Rather just saying, this is all a disaster and you should be taken behind the shed over there and quietly shot. We tried to get away from that sort of prosecutorial scrutiny and towards a much more positive scrutiny.”
"When I started as chairman, it was like being a small boy in a sweet shop where everything’s free, and there are so many interesting topics and subjects to go for,” Jenkin says.
But the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex – tempering his own sweet tooth for Maltesers with a black Americano in an airy Portcullis House, a few days before coronavirus closed it down – says there have been some notable common themes in the committee’s inquiries.
One highlight was an inquiry that began soon after PASC was set up following the June 2010 general election, on strategic thinking in Whitehall. “Nobody was talking about strategy and David Cameron at the time just said to me, ‘Oh, you think we should have a strategy? I think I want to just remain flexible.’ To which I said, ‘Well, then that’s your strategy.’”
That was the first of a series of inquiries “where we infused what we did, and what we were scrutinising, with strategic thinking,” Jenkin says.
The same theme came up in 2013, when the committee asked then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude about his plan for civil service reform. “He wasn’t able, really, to answer those questions – what he wanted to reform and why. He just said, ‘Well, civil service reform is about a whole lot of things that need to be done’.
“Again, lacking any kind of coherent narrative about what was wrong and therefore what needs to change. And of course, what we came down to, it was fundamentally about leadership and culture – by which we mean attitudes and behaviour.
“And he said to me, after four years in the job, ‘That’s where we should have started’. So, we were all learning. And every inquiry we looked at, we always came back to leadership culture, whichever organisation we were looking at – and governance – and how leadership and culture and governance are intertwined.”
These themes were all starkly apparent in a 2016 inquiry into the collapse of Kids Company – a charity that had benefited from some £42m of government grants, despite warnings about its precarious finances. It went bust a week after receiving £3m from the Cabinet Office – despite objections to the grant by then-Cabinet Office perm sec Richard Heaton.
PACAC, as it was known by then, found the company had enjoyed “unique, privileged and significant access to senior ministers and prime ministers throughout successive administrations”. Jenkin explains: “Basically, one executive had dominated the whole thing and manipulated pretty well everybody – including the prime minister and [Cabinet Office minister] Oliver Letwin, which is why this money was handed over just before it collapsed.”
The MPs issued a series of recommendations, including a push to improve the civil service’s ability to audit charities rather than relying on outside firms; and strengthening the oversight of the Charity Commission, which it said had been “undermined by limits in its powers and resources”.
However clear PACAC’s recommendations have been, Jenkin says learning from failure can be a slow process for government.
In late 2017, the committee became concerned about the finances of the outsourcing and construction giant Carillion, which held 420 public-sector contracts at the time.
By the time the MPs returned from Christmas break, Carillion had folded, in what was to become one of the most-scrutinised outsourcing failures of recent years. The National Audit Office quickly settled its spotlight on the company, while the work and pensions, and business, energy and industrial strategy committees began a joint inquiry almost immediately, focusing especially on pensions and corporate governance.
Jenkin says PACAC’s inquiry was different. “Whereas other committees concentrated on the failings of the accounting profession, the failings of the board, the directors’ conflicts of interest… we concentrated on what was going on in government when all these contracts were being let to Carillion and others like Carillion,” he explains.
The committee’s report, published in mid-2018, found the government had ignored its own procurement rules, routinely tried to transfer risks it did not understand to companies, and sometimes gave inaccurate data to outsourcers.
Jenkin says that while the MPs found there had been a “big improvement” in commercial skills in recent years, most officials involved had been more concerned with process “rather than a genuine understanding, or a genuine relationship, between the department and the contracting organisation”.
“There’s not one blinding revelation that means everybody’s going to suddenly behave differently and be much more effective”
“If you’re going to outsource something, that contract should be a means of creating a joint endeavour, not a means of just shoving risk off the government’s balance sheet onto the company’s balance sheet, because that transfer of risk just proved to be phoney. If you don’t think about how much risk a company can carry, and are they really carrying that risk in a responsible way, the risk comes straight back onto the government’s balance sheet when you think you’ve got rid of it.”
Does he think those lessons have been learned in the years since? “I think it’s a slow learning process,” he says.
“There’s not one blinding revelation that means everybody’s going to suddenly behave differently and have a different attitude and be much more effective. It’s a process of learning and learning and learning, and developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of what is really important.”
The importance of genuine relationships – between government and external organisations, and between government bodies – has reared its head again and again in the last decade of PACAC’s work.
A 2014 report on the state of public bodies – four years into the Cameron government’s “cull of the quangos” – called for better accountability between public bodies and their sponsor departments, after finding “inconsistency, overlaps, confusion and clutter”.
“Again, it was all about the relationships,” Jenkin says. “The only relationship that public bodies seemed to have with the government department was through a procession of civil servants moving through jobs and a once-a-year meeting with a minister, probably a junior minister. And that was the extent of the supervision – or at the very big ones, a relationship with the permanent secretary.”
Even today, he says there are an “awful lot” of public bodies that have too little accountability. “But on the other hand, we found that where functions are in departments, there’s even less accountability. They don’t have to publish their accounts.”
Institutional memory and misfits
The “procession of civil servants” through critical roles is a great source of frustration for Jenkin. On several occasions, he says, PACAC has challenged government with the following question: “How do you develop an institutional memory if the civil servants are changing every two or three years?”
In the last couple of years, however, the message has started to get through.
“Everybody now says this, which is very satisfactory,” he says, pointing to the introduction of special responsibility allowances under then-cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. But Jenkin adds that he was disappointed to hear that only 25 officials had been given the allowance – intended to incentivise them to stay in their jobs while they oversaw big projects – and that it amounted to around 2.5% to 3% of their salary.
“That is not going to change the price of fish. If somebody is a deputy director general in charge of a very big programme and they need to stay on in that job and run that programme, they should be promoted to director general or assistant permanent secretary in that role so they can carry on developing their career and being promoted, without taking their responsibilities away and starting again with somebody else.”
As well as institutional memory, Jenkin is concerned about retaining skills. “As I’m endlessly pointing out, the Fulton Report [on the civil service] in 1967 reported that there was a ‘cult of the generalist’.
“And it’s far worse now than it used to be, in that there used to be a vertical career structure in each department. Generally, the permanent secretary would come from within that department, and they would know that department backwards.”
That is no longer the norm, he says. “I’ve even heard it said, ‘Oh, we can’t give that job to that person, he loves it too much. He knows and loves it too much, we must have somebody from outside.’ The idea being that they would somehow have been purchased by the department.
“Brexiteers in the civil service would have been the oddballs, they would have had to keep their opinions somewhat muted in order not to be out of step with the corporate culture”
“I mean, there can be that sort of nativism, but I don’t sense there’s a lot of that. If you want someone to run something really hard and technical, you need someone who understands something hard and technical.” He mentions the late Sir Michael Quinlan, who built a career in the then-Air Ministry before becoming deputy secretary and then permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence during the latter years of the Cold War. “We don’t have permanent secretaries like that any more,” Jenkin says.
Now, he says there is a “certain lack of diversity in the way permanent secretaries tend to think – there is a house style, which typically revolves around Oxford PPE”.
His comments bring to mind the infamous blog post by top spad Dominic Cummings, urging “misfits and weirdos” to apply for civil service roles. “First of all, there are misfits and weirdos in the civil service. I would say that they are valued for their expertise, but they tend to be held down at a certain level,” Jenkin says.
He says Cummings’s blog was a challenge to the civil service, which had “rather comfortably held a house view about certain matters, like the European Union”.
The ardent Brexiteer says there was an “establishment collective failure of imagination around the whole question of the [June 2016] referendum and the possibility that it might go the wrong way”.
In the years leading up to the referendum on EU membership, he says, “Brexiteers in the civil service would have been the oddballs, they would have had to keep their opinions somewhat muted in order not to be out of step with the corporate culture.”
But Jenkin adds that much of the blame apportioned to officials over their handling of Brexit “actually rests with ministers for failing to provide clear direction”.
Backing a report by the FDA union and the Smith Institute last year on civil service impartiality, Jenkin said a “false narrative” had emerged among some of his Eurosceptic colleagues “that there is a deep state that has beguiled politicians about our relationship with the European Union and is now preventing us from getting out”.
In the last couple of months, a similar “deep state” narrative has arisen over the resignation of Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam at the end of February. Rutnam accused the home secretary, Priti Patel, of bullying staff – which she has denied – after an ugly couple of weeks in which unnamed sources had briefed against both in the media.
Anonymous allies of Patel have since accused “dark forces” of conspiring to unseat the home secretaries – what does Jenkin make of that theory? “I’ve got no comment to make about that,” he says.
He immediately adds: “We don’t need more than two or three people to be briefing to fill the front pages with what they want to want to print and I have little doubt that this rather diminutive, petite but fiery, non-Oxbridge, north-London Ugandan Asian has been subject to a certain amount of presumptive behaviour challenges, shall we put it, by people who think they know much better.”
But Jenkin says the prime minister – who has been criticised for publicly backing Patel, even as he instructed cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to lead an inquiry into the bullying allegations – “cannot be faulted” for his handling of the situation. “They’ve done it by the book... It’s absolutely as in the cabinet manual, they’re doing it with the involvement of the prime minister’s adviser on the ministerial code, who is scrupulously independent.”
And he says Rutnam should not have resigned. “In the private sector, if there is a mismatch of personalities in a particular area, then the personalities change. And it should be possible to do that without making it a cause célèbre about the whole system.”
“Priti is a very strong character. She can be quite strident. She’s very clear about what she wants. And civil servants should be able to deal with that. Personally, I find the idea that she is a bully is rather unlikely… that’s not to pre-empt the inquiry.
“But I think the most extraordinary feature of this is the one thing that the permanent secretary never does is resign. That’s why we have a permanent, impartial civil service.”
PACAC once said the relationship between ministers and officials was the “fulcrum of Whitehall effectiveness”. Its 2018 report on the subject described that relationship as one of “unrequited love”.
“I didn’t quite like the phrase,” Jenkin says, but explains: “The civil servant wants to serve the minister, wants to save the minister from embarrassment, wants to save the department from embarrassment by not letting the minister do things which they think will cause embarrassment.”
Knowing this has been a great asset to Jenkin in his decade chairing PACAC, he says. “I think for select committees to get the best sides of civil service witnesses, you’ve got to understand what the relationship is with the minister. They’re not allowed to say whatever they want, or whatever they think is right.”
Jenkin says he has seen some “bitter battles” as the head of the committee. “I remember the protests that we had about purdah in the run up to the [EU] referendum, where the government was trying to abolish the key clause in the elections, referendums and political parties bill which provided for a statutory restriction of what the government could spend during the last period of the referendum. And that turned into a major parliamentary battle.”
He recalls a tense committee hearing, in which Jeremy Heywood repeatedly defended the government’s decision to drop a provision from the purdah rules restricting the work of civil servants in the run up to an election, to avoid any risk that officials’ involvement in business as usual in the European Parliament in the pre-referendum period could be misconstrued as campaigning.
“I think very often, civil servants are left telling a committee what they know is fundamentally not the whole truth and not entirely accurate, because that’s the line that’s been given to them by ministers”
“I felt very sorry for the cabinet secretary. He didn’t really believe what he was told to come and say to the committee,” he says.
Jenkin adds: “I think it is evident that very often, civil servants are left telling a committee what they know is fundamentally not the whole truth and not entirely accurate, because that’s the line to take that’s been given to them by ministers.”
And so it has been refreshing to hear witnesses with no such restrictions. Asked to recall his favourite witnesses to PACAC, Jenkin says Peter Hennessy, the academic and historian of government, was “always terrific”.
Hennessy spoke to the committee about civil service leadership in 2012. “I remember when the role of the head of the civil service and the cabinet secretary was split, we were asking, can this really work? And he just looked quizzically back at the committee and said, no, it won’t work. And somebody said, well, why won’t it work? ‘Because the cabinet secretary is always top dog’.”
“It was just so graphic. The government had made this whole pretence that somehow the head of the civil service and the cabinet secretary were going to share the car together from Wimbledon every morning, they were going to be equals and they were going to work as a team. And it simply didn’t operate like that, which is why Jeremy Heywood [ultimately] became head of the civil service.”
Jenkin will surely see more bitter battles and graphic imagery in the months to come. He now sits on the Public Accounts Committee, and was named the government's preferred candidate to be chair of the Liaison Committee in March.
It remains to be seen whether Jenkin will bring his constructive approach to these committees – seeking lessons rather than blame – but it’s certain that his decade at the helm of the administration committee has given him a clear idea of what government can do better, and how he would like to see it try.
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