Civil servants saw parliament as a “distraction”, say former New Labour ministers

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 27 September 2016 in News

Ed Balls, Jacqui Smith and Jack Straw are among the latest former ministers to lift the lid on their dealings with the civil service. Suzannah Brecknell reports

Civil servants don’t understand the importance of their ministers' constituency work, according to several former Labour ministers interviewed by the Institute for Government as part of its Ministers Reflect project.

Former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who held a number of ministerial posts between 1999 and 2009, told the IfG that "in my view the civil servants constantly failed to understand the significance of parliament to you as a minister".

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She recalled civil servants saying "Have a nice evening, minister" as she left the office at half past six, with “no recognition that what you were doing was going over to parliament, where individual MPs would be bending your ears about your policy or about constituency issues"

There was also "a sort of flippancy about the way in which they prepared you for parliamentary [work]" and "a slight feeling that parliament was a bit of a distraction from the really important work,” Smith says says.

“I had to explain more than once that actually my accountability was to parliament and to MPs,” she adds. “And therefore, if they were asking questions or writing letters or contributing to the debates, it was actually pretty important [and] that was the thing that was going to be my priority at that particular moment." 

Other ministers had similar experiences. Ben Bradshaw, former culture secretary and a minister from 2001 to 2010, said: "Surprisingly enough, not very many civil servants seem to realise that your ministerial job is only one of your jobs.”

He continued: "So I found that taking my private office and the civil servants to my constituency, getting them to sit on surgeries, follow me around for the day and have some down time in Exeter was really helpful as well as a bonding experience.”

Training and capability

Alongside a lack of understanding about MPs other work, several former ministers felt civil servants lacked key skills needed to support government.

Patricia Hewitt, who served as both health and trade and industry secretary was frustrated with "the lack of some really important capabilities in the two departments that I ran", such as drafting white papers and speeches. 

“You would get a list of facts, but no real attempt to translate that into an argument, which is what you need for a speech or an article, let alone a white paper,” she told the interviewers.

She also bemoaned a lack of financial understanding at the Department of Health.

“You would get a list of facts, but no real attempt to translate that into an argument, which is what you need for a speech or an article, let alone a white paper" - former health secretary Patricia Hewitt

"With the exception of Richard Douglas, the excellent finance director who at that point wasn’t at the most senior level, the top team couldn’t do the numbers, they didn’t have a grip on the finances and they didn’t know that the NHS had over-spent in 2004/05," she said.

Liam Byrne (pictured), former chief secretary to the Treasury and a minister from 2005 to 2010, also took private office staff on away days to his constituency to build their understanding of his ministerial role.

Byrne noted another capability gap: what he called an "appalling" lack of delivery capability. This led him to believe that every minister should have their own delivery unit – and he said he chose to allocate a private secretary in his office to the task of monitoring the implementation of priority policies.

He was also unimpressed with the quality of training in the civil service, saying: “The training that a Fast Stream civil servant gets is a mile behind what you get in a world class consulting firm. And that is deeply, deeply frustrating and it shouldn’t be like that.”

Despite what Byrne saw as some positive changes under former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell, the ex-minister said he felt the service remained bad at developing talented staff throughout his time in government. 

“You could see that when you looked at the DG [Director General] level and just the number of people being sourced from outside at that level,” he said.

“The civil service was just not good at giving people that sort of professional track of development" - former Treasury minister Liam Byrne

“The civil service was just not good at giving people that sort of professional track of development that gave them the range of resources that allowed them to be good DGs and then to go on to the top of the organisation. And it’s not rocket science because, I mean, it’s not cheap, but it’s not rocket science and every global consulting firm has been doing it for the last 80 years."

Delivery focus

Other ministers revealed their tips for ensuring key policies were delivered. Jack Straw, the former foreign and home secretary, described setting up a mechanism to ensure he could implement the results of the Macpherson Inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s death.

If a minister wants to do something and is not sure whether the department wants to do it, he says: “then what you have to do is set up a series of meetings; in the Lawrence case it was every month.”

In another case there were fortnightly meetings, he said, with the result that “gradually the department gets the impression that you are really serious about them".

Tessa Jowell, one-time culture secretary and a senior minister throughout the Labour government, wanted to see delivery units in every department with a critical project, and a more project-based approach to delivery across government, “rather than the stasis that comes from individual departments”.

"We should have had a team of civil servants embedded in G4S to represent the public interest" - former culture secretary Tessa Jowell

Other changes Jowell would like to see in Whitehall included a more respectful attitude from Number 10 towards departments, and greater recognition that delivery often requires strong partnerships between public and private sectors.

“This is a lesson I learned during the Olympics when the security contract with G4S went, you know, went sour,” she told the IfG, referring to the security contractor's admission, in the run up to the London Olympics, that it would not be able to deliver enough staff.

“It was all fine in the end, but this was a multi-million contract and actually, we should have had a team of civil servants embedded in G4S to represent the public interest and I think that kind of interchange, properly managed, is a way that you just extract more value,” Jowell said. 

Building consensus

Jowell’s experience of the Olympics also taught her the importance of cross-party working. By the time she became culture secretary in 2001, she says, she wasn’t afraid to work in a cross-party way, and recognised that this helped a policy become long-lasting.

She spoke of her frustration that she didn’t manage to secure this level of resilience in all aspects of the Olympic Games. Labour’s school sports programme was, she says, “swept away” despite cross-party support, in what was “a bit of ridiculous ideology actually, by Michael Gove [then education secretary].”

Former Labour education secretary Ed Balls (pictured) also spoke of the importance of cross-party agreement on key policy principles, saying: “I think in the end, the only things which really matter, the only things that really last, that have long-term impact, are the things which become consensual.”

A big frustration therefore, he said, was when other politicians faileld to respond to attempts to build consensus. “I think the biggest frustration is where you sort of feel as though, ‘OK, it’s fine to have a bit of a disagreement, but actually we should have some consensus here.’”

Balls, like Jowell, was especially critical of Michael Gove in this respect, saying “[He] was just the furthest away of any politician you could ever imagine in terms of thinking about consensus.

"He just couldn’t do it. So therefore he basically had to disagree on everything…And I would reach out to him and try and have that kind of relationship, but it just wasn’t possible.”


The interviews also contain insights into the emergence of technology in government offices. Balls reflected that when he arrived at the Treasury in 1997 the department was already using e-mails, which he had not yet begun to use in the Labour Party.

Conversely, the Labour party team had mobile phones and pagers and were contactable round the clock, while the Treasury press office had just one duty phone passed around between them. 

He described being incredulous at "the idea that there was a head of the Treasury press, who was uncontactable from Friday till Monday, because she wasn’t the duty press officer and he had the phone: this was just like a totally different realm from what we were used to."

Hewitt, meanwhile, recalled of her first day: "So I met my private office, asked for a computer – in fact, I said ‘What I’d really like is a laptop, a large screen and a dock-in unit’, which is what I’d had at Andersen, to which my private secretary said, ‘We’ve never had a minister with a computer before, what’s a dock-in unit?!’"


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Suzannah Brecknell
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Suzannah Brecknell is Civil Service World's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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