Shadow Cabinet Office minister Dianne Hayter thinks politicians should show more respect to civil servants who “work their socks off”. But, she tells Jess Bowie, there are still plenty of areas where Whitehall needs to up its game.
The terraced houses where Baroness Hayter lives are a spectrum of lively pastel shades, making this North London street feel more like free-thinking Brighton than orderly Kentish Town. The Labour peer’s home is slightly less obtrusive than her neighbours’ – her Victorian brickwork remains unpainted – but it is far from dull: its front door and three storeys of window frames are rendered in a rich shade of red.
“Of course!” Hayter says, firing up a Nespresso machine in a corner of her spacious kitchen and dining room.
“We’ve lived here for nearly 30 years. My sister-in-law was a bit nonplussed by us moving here – she remembered all the houses being covered in soot from the coal-fired trains coming out of St Pancras, Euston and King’s Cross, though that was mostly gone by the time we moved in. We couldn’t afford this place now,” she says, hastening to add that she is all in favour of Labour’s mansion tax proposals.
Upstairs we settle down in an airy living room. To Hayter’s left is a floor-to-ceiling bookcase groaning with political literature (it later emerges she owns four Neil Kinnock books) and on the wall behind her are two huge, exuberant canvasses – one of a woman in a swimming costume, the other a family portrait.
“Do you know Bratby at all? He was in the Kitchen Sink school of art in the 50s and 60s.”
The paintings, she says, were a gift from a man she befriended in the 90s, during her stint as chief executive of the European Parliamentary Labour Party. It’s just one of many party and union roles Dianne Hayter has had over a long and active career – which has also taken in directorships of the Fabian Society and Alcohol Concern and positions on the boards of the Patient Safety Agency and the National Consumer Council. A couple of years before her stint as chair of the Labour Party from 2007-08, she even managed to squeeze in a PhD under Peter Hennessy on the topic of Labour’s traditional right wing.
And it’s to the right of the party where most people would place her politically – despite her erstwhile nickname of ‘Tiny Trot’. (“I’m working at the General Municipal Workers’ Union, I’m 21, it’s just at the end of the 60s, so of course I’m ‘Tiny Trot,’” she explains.) Never really a Trotskyite, and certainly no Bennite, Hayter was very involved in trying to rid Labour of the militant tendency in the 70s and 80s. She also supported Denis Healey for deputy leader, which in those days was “seen as a really right-wing thing”, she says.
Not that socialism has ever been a dirty word.
Hayter on… Access talks
At the moment you’ve got two parties in government, and they can both ask civil servants to look into things for them. Clearly it’s for post-2015, and that’s a completely new situation. I think it’s putting enormous pressure on civil servants.
“Oh no, I think I’m a socialist. I think I’m a social democrat, in that the democracy part of Labour is really important to me. One’s got the objective of socialism – in other words, a much fairer society – but the way of getting there for me is deeply rooted in the rule of law, in democracy, in participation, in user involvement and in doing things in a fair and open way. So you understand why I’m interested in the civil service, because they are absolutely part of that process,” Hayter says.
She may not have volunteered for the Cabinet Office brief – which she has shadowed in the Lords since 2012 – but like her other portfolio, consumer affairs, it complements her interest in improving public services and making policy more user-focused.
Asked about her party’s approach to the civil service while it was in power, and whether Labour should have done anything differently, she immediately mentions diversity, before telling a story from her time as vice chair of the Financial Services Consumer Panel.
“We were examining an issue affecting consumers – I cannot for the life of me remember what it was – and I was with some Treasury officials and they said, ‘Well, of course, we’re consumers, we’re clients.’ And I looked at them in complete disbelief; these were people who’d been to university, who happened to all be white, who happened to be in highly paid, secure jobs with a pension... and they dared to say that they were consumers.”
The officials hadn’t used the phrase “average consumers”, Hayter says, but the implication was they understood consumers.
“It deeply shocked me that they had no concept that we were working for a group of people whom their lives probably hadn’t brought them into contact with.
“So I think diversity in the civil service isn’t simply about gender, though that’s important – I’d like to see more women – and it’s not simply about ethnic minorities, though that’s also important, but it’s about class. We just know how many senior civil servants all came from particular schools, particular universities...”
For Hayter, having more people from working class backgrounds involved in policymaking is crucial – as is fostering more of an interchange between civil servants and the outside world.
“Civil servants need to understand that their immediate reaction to something isn’t typical. I don’t expect them to have the answers, but I think it helps them to know when they should go out and test things.”
While she seems comfortable with many of Francis Maude’s Whitehall reforms, Hayter says she felt very uneasy with the negative language the Cabinet Office minister has sometimes used about civil servants themselves. Maude frequently undermined his own agenda, she says, “by not being supportive enough of officials, who are, after all, public servants, have an ethos of public service, are highly professional, and who work their socks off”.
Hayter says there have also been occasions where Maude’s thinking about civil service reform has been along the right lines, but that she hasn’t agreed with his solutions. She cites Extended Ministerial Offices [EMOs] as an example.
“I think our ministers do need a political backup that is bigger than just one or two spads,” she says, adding that 24-hour rolling news and social media have absolutely altered how politicians work, and that these days ministers are expected immediately to take a line on any number of breaking stories, gaffes and policy announcements. What Maude was putting his finger on, Hayter says, is that against that backdrop “ministers need around them people who are sympathetic to what they want to achieve, but are slightly embedded into the civil service machine.”
“So I think his analysis was right, but I’m not sure his particular formulation was as good,” she says.
What would she suggest?
“The Labour Party will be thinking about this at the next election,” she says with a smile.
Hayter on… John Smith
I’d been with John the night before he died. We didn’t have mobile phones then, but I remember someone paging me saying he’d had a heart attack, and I knew… We went up to Iona last year, where he’s buried – a lot of his friends, 20 years on. It was an extraordinary moment [after his death] of the people feeling very warm, very moved by a politician who’d never been prime minister, and had never won a war. Margaret Beckett became leader and handled it completely brilliantly.
As to whether the presence of EMOs – or a Labour equivalent – in Whitehall will lead to a creeping politicisation of the civil service, Hayter is having none of it. They could even have the opposite effect, she insists, by drawing clear boundaries between the work of impartial officials and that of political appointees.
“A lot of the civil servants say that they’re happier about having a political office there, as long as it doesn’t include civil servants,” she says.
Nor do the new rules around permanent secretary appointments – where a secretary of state can select their permanent secretaries from a shortlist – give her cause to worry about civil service neutrality. From everything she has been told, she says, the secretary of state already had some involvement in perm sec appointments anyway. “Before, it was a bit unofficial – so this is probably better.”
“I don’t think actually it’s a big issue, I know some civil servants got very jumpy about it; I’m less sure. Again it is a political world, that relationship is so key, that I think the idea that a politician can completely outsource a decision of that importance to the Civil Service Commission again doesn’t feel to me quite right,” she says.
Hayter’s former supervisor Lord Hennessy sees things rather differently, of course. He’s deeply concerned about the civil service becoming politicised. What would she say to reassure him that Labour, if it wins in 2015, would prevent this from happening?
“I don’t see that danger, I really don’t. Talking both to ex-ministers and to the current crop, I think they see the distinction very clearly. I think Ed Miliband, by having been all of them, you know, an adviser, a cabinet minister, understands it very, very well. I think the tone is set from the top,” she says.
During any discussion with a politician about the Whitehall landscape after 2015, the elephant in the room is, of course, money. Four months before a general election you would struggle to find any MP or peer willing to explore the topic of the eye-watering cuts to come – cuts which all the main parties are signed up to in one form or another. Hayter is no different, and has made clear this topic is firmly off today’s agenda.
But she is happy to discuss other plans. Along with increasing diversity, she is, for example, keen to boost procurement and commissioning skills among senior civil servants. Despite the current government’s drive to improve commercial skills, Hayter says she still hears complaints from the private sector.
“Some of the big people who provide services for government have come to me and to others saying, ‘Look, the civil service aren’t very good at commissioning, they don’t know the right questions to ask us, and it’s quite hard. I know we want to screw you for as much money as possible to do our job, but actually, we need someone to negotiate with who really understands it so we get a contract that’s right!’”
Hayter also wants to see less churn among perm secs – “I do think that’s a problem, because it’s harder for them to be answerable for big decisions if they’re no longer still there” – and for Labour to continue with the digital by default agenda. The peer recently applied to renew her passport and discovered she could do much of it online. She was highly impressed.
“I think it’s really important that Labour do cheer on when they have done completely brilliant things like that,” she says of her government counterparts in the Cabinet Office. Such honesty and generosity of spirit is hard to imagine from a shadow frontbencher in the Commons, but perhaps unsurprising given the Lords’ less partisan approach to policy.
Another priority Hayter wishes was higher up Whitehall’s to-do list is taking the time to learn from history. Last Christmas, for a relaxing, festive read, she says she took on Crewe and King’s The Blunders of our Governments (“Have you read it? It is phenomenal and awful – complete depression by the end...”). Today she uses the book to emphasise the fact that government officials are “always looking at the next bit of policy,” rather than “publishing, and being open, and monitoring and reviewing what you’ve done.”
“In any organisation I’ve worked in, we’ve always done what doctors do. Every week doctors go through deaths and complications: what could they have missed? What are the lessons? How do we learn to expect it next time? Now it is possible that that goes on in the civil service, but I certainly don’t see much of it, and not a lot is published.”
Yet before Labour can encourage Whitehall to better learn from its mistakes, or start implementing any other culture changes in government, there’s an election to win. An outright Labour majority looks increasingly shaky, but help for Hayter’s party is at hand: Nigel Farage has said he would do “a deal with the devil” to get into power, explicitly including a pact with Labour among his fiendish equations.
“You mean there are two devils?” Hayter asks.
But could Labour do a deal with UKIP if the electoral numbers add up?
“It is beyond my understanding or imagination that it could. I mean, I think you can only go into coalition with somebody if they really share your objectives,” she says.
What about a Labour-SNP coalition?
“I just want us to win an overall majority,” Hayter says, with a noise that is half sigh, half laugh.
At this stage, that looks like a tall order, as Hayter knows all too well. Yet few Labour figures are as equipped for the vicissitudes of political battle as she is. From the bitter infighting of the 70s and 80s that almost tore her party apart, to the death of John Smith in the 90s and that crushing defeat in 2010, the one-time Tiny Trot has seen it all, and barely flinched. Today, she seems prepared for whatever unknown electoral frontiers open up in the year ahead.