New Labour-era minister Hazel Blears has spoken of her disbelief that some new ministers enter government looking to pick fights with officials – and praised the efforts of her staff at the three departments she worked at.
Blears, who was first elected to parliament in Labour’s 1997 landslide, was a junior minister at the Department of Health and the Home Office before becoming secretary of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2007.
In a just-published interview that forms part of the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series, Blears said ministers who sought conflict with their civil servants were “cutting off their nose to spite their face”.
“I always found civil servants incredibly helpful,” she said. “They want you to succeed, because if you fail, they fail.
“Civil servants want you to do well, irrespective of your politics. They want you to manage well. They want you to be able to handle all of their stakeholders really well. They want you to build relationships.
“Because they know that if you do all that work, you’re going to make more progress in the policy objectives.”
Blears said in her interview that new ministers should make time to get to know their civil servants – and also cultivate relationships with their ministerial colleagues, as well as other MPs and constituents.
“It’s relationships that will stand you in good stead at the end of the day,” she said.
Blears revealed that she managed to communicate enough of her own personal tastes to her Home Office staff that they started burying treats in the ministerial red boxes filled with paperwork that were prepared for for her to sign in the evenings and at weekends.
“I was a very assiduous minister, but my private office in the Home Office knew when I was getting tired, and towards the bottom of the box they would put in Maltesers just to give me that extra push to do the last bit,” she said.
Blears' only criticism of her civil servants was a failure to recognise the importance of constituents. “You don’t own us, our constituents own us because they’ve given us the honour an privilege of representing them,” she said.
Elsewhere in her interview, Blears was asked about joined-up government – off the back of reflections on the Prevent agenda, which required collaboration between the Home Office and Blears’ DCLG.
“I think it was really hard to do, and I don’t think it was done particularly well,” she said. “I think it’s a cultural thing. When you’re in central government, you’re used to being the more powerful partner, because you have the money. It’s not a lack of respect.”
Blears said the devolution agenda and increased powers for metro mayors posed similar problems for the centre of government that called for a new approach.
“Culturally, the centre finds it really hard to let go. And a bit of why that is [is] because they’re accountable for the delivery, and they’ll be measured,” she said. “How many robberies have you stopped? How much street crime, etc…?
“So the centre has a huge incentive to hold onto power because once you let it go, and if the delivery doesn’t happen, you’ve got no levers, or very few levers, to make it happen.”
Blears said she believed government needed to take a fresh look at devolution and the structures and relationships involved – followed by an “honest discussion” about what cannot be devolved and has to remain at the centre.
She said looking to devolve power and functions from the centre of government had been “almost like pulling teeth” during her time in government. But she said the resistance was not because of bad motives.
“It’s actually [because] if it fails, then it’s really quite serious,” she said.
Hazel Blears’ full Ministers Reflect interview can be found here.