By Suzannah.Brecknell

11 Aug 2010

With public service reform in the spotlight Bernard Jenkin, new chair of the public administration select committee, tells Suzannah Brecknell it’s an exciting time to be scrutinising the “process of good and efficient governance”

In his account of life as a junior minister, former Labour MP Chris Mullin notes that “those in the know” commiserated when he moved from the chairmanship of the home affairs committee to a lowly role in the now defunct Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. “They knew I had a better job in my old incarnation,” he wrote.

Bernard Jenkin (pictured above), recently elected chair of the public administration select committee, smiles wryly when I mention Mullin’s assessment of the relative importance of select committee chairs and junior ministers. With experience as a parliamentary private secretary, a member of the shadow cabinet and several committees over the course of his 18 years in Parliament, Jenkin thinks committees – and backbench MPs more widely – will assume yet more influence in the coming Parliament. “We’re going to see a reinvigorated House of Commons,” he says. “One that has more confidence and more determination to separate itself from the usual party political knock-about and make government more accountable.”

This new confidence was demonstrated at PASC’s first evidence session in July, when the committee asked for – and was given – a role in approving new arm’s length bodies by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

Jenkin describes PASC’s remit as examining “the process of good and efficient governance”. As such, it has always been a key committee for civil servants to keep an eye on; but it’s particularly in the spotlight now, because public service reform is a key part of the coalition agenda. “It is a very exciting place to be,” says Jenkin. “We’re like schoolchildren in a sweet shop: there’s so much to choose from, our most difficult task is prioritising what is most important.”

At PASC’s first evidence session, committee members cantered through topics including public spending cuts, the ‘Big Society’ and quangos. Jenkin chairs with an amiable politeness, often with the hint of a smile at his lips. His questions weren’t tough, and his manner was mild – but this was, after all, a largely introductory session, gathering preliminary evidence for PASC’s first two major reports: on how defence strategy is made, and on the roles and numbers of ministers.

The session began with some pre-legislative scrutiny of the Cabinet Office’s Superannuation Bill, designed to set a cap on civil service redundancy payments. The next day Jenkin stressed that the committee has not expressed a view on the legislation, but voiced his own concerns over the possibility of legal challenges to the bill, given the High Court’s decision to quash an earlier agreement amending the Civil Service Compensation Scheme.

Beyond the two reports already underway, Jenkin suggests the committee may carry out an annual review of the civil service (see news section), and says that PASC should focus “both on the strengths of the service, and the additional strengths it requires in order to remain an anchor of stability in our system”.

Jenkin is reluctant to talk in detail about the “additional strengths” the civil service may require before he’s taken evidence on the topic, but he does raise some areas for concern. The first, to be considered in PASC’s first report, is the ability of the civil service to think strategically.

“There is an argument that civil servants like [former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence] Sir Michael Quinlan, who was clearly a strategic thinker, are not [nowadays] produced; that the civil service has become more managerial,” says Jenkin, adding: “I’m sure many senior civil servants may dispute that.”

Jenkin also indicates an interest in exploring the capacity for decision-making within the civil service, and the “ability to manage and implement” policy – an area of key concern. “What could be more important than government delivering what its elected [representatives] are trying to achieve? Failure of implementation is a failure of accountability and democracy,” he says.

Improvements to management and implementation capacity should not, however, mean more managers. “We can’t afford the layers and layers of management we’ve got at the moment,” says Jenkin. Instead, decision-making capacity should be developed “much lower down the food chain”, to allow for “what the armed forces call delegated mission command – that is, giving more responsibility much lower down the management chain so that you need less management”.

Jenkin’s use of a military phrase reflects his strong interest in defence and security affairs – he served as shadow defence secretary under Iain Duncan Smith, and on the defence select committee for four years in the last Parliament. This interest will inform PASC’s inquiry into the process of developing, maintaining and co-ordinating UK defence strategy.

The committee will look at the work of the National Security Council (NSC), supported by a team of civil servants working under national security adviser Sir Peter Ricketts, in developing the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and subsequent National Security Strategy, and will publish its findings before the SDSR is completed in the autumn.

Sir Peter will be stepping down next year – something which may strengthen Jenkin’s opinion that “at the moment [developing strategy is] probably dependent – and this is what we’re going to test – upon too few individuals who will be moving on to other jobs too quickly”.

Jenkin regards the lack of a standing, independent unit for defence strategy as “a lacuna at the heart of government”; before the election, he voiced concerns about the decision to disband the Research and Assessment Branch (R&AB), a multi-disciplinary team based at the Defence Academy which provided advice and research to inform defence and security strategy.

He says the PASC inquiry “is pushing at an open door”, and the committee will find “a ready audience in the government for the next several steps that are necessary in order to institutionalise strategic thinking”.

The committee’s other report may find a more defensive audience. Entitled ‘What do ministers do?’, it will build on the work of the previous PASC members, who recommended earlier this year that the number of ministers could be reduced by as much as one third.

Jenkin is keen to position the inquiry as constitutional rather than an attack on the current administration; it is driven, he says, by plans to reduce the number of MPs. “[Ministers] are all working fantastically hard,” he says, “I don’t think there are many ‘make-work’ junior ministerial posts out there at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that constitutionally we shouldn’t maintain the ratio of MPs to ministers rather than allow it to be eroded.”

In this era of a re-invigorated House of Commons and stronger select committees, does Jenkin have a vision of the legacy he’d like to leave through PASC? “My predecessor [Tony Wright] raised the profile of this committee very successfully,” he replies. “I would like to build on that work so that people are as familiar with the work of this committee as, for example, with that of the public accounts committee – because it is potentially just as important.”

CV highlights
1959 Born in North London
1982 Graduates from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having served as president of the Cambridge Union Society in his final year
1992 Elected MP for North Colchester (he is now, thanks to boundary changes, MP for Harwich and North Essex); becomes PPS to secretary of state for Scotland.
1997 Becomes opposition spokesperson for constitutional affairs, Scotland and Wales 
1998 Appointed shadow minister for transport
2001 Takes shadow defence brief under Iain Duncan Smith
2004 Leads a successful ‘no’ campaign to defeat the government in the referendum on the establishment of a North-East regional assembly.
2006 As Conservative deputy chairman (candidates), has responsibility for the ‘A-list’ designed to diversify the Conservative candidate lists
2010 Becomes first elected chair of the public administration select committee

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