By Sam Macrory

20 Jul 2016

The civil service "lost self-confidence" as a result of the coalition's reform, the former Defra and Home Office perm sec tells Sam Macrory, as the pair take tea in Sutton House

Who? Dame Helen Ghosh became the director-general of the National Trust in 2012 after spending more than 30 years as a civil servant. Starting out as an administration trainee at the Department of the Environment, she went on to hold senior roles at the DWP and HMRC before becoming permanent secretary at Defra in 2005. She became perm sec at the Home Office in January 2011, stepping down 19 months later to take up her current position.

The venue Sutton House and Breaker’s Yard. A National Trust property in deepest Hackney, this Grade II listed Tudor manor house was built in 1535 by Sir Ralph Sadlier, a courtier to Henry VIII. In the centuries since, it has been a school, a centre for fire wardens during the Second World War and, in the 1980s, a squat. Fully restored with original Tudor features, it is now a museum, gallery, cafe, book shop and wedding venue.

The menu A vast slice of raspberry sponge cake and a pot of English tea.

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We discussed
Leaving the civil service
"Government at its best works fantastically fast, and its range and power is incomparable to what any private organisation could do. Response to an emergency, the way the government machine can swing in behind it so quickly… again, incomparable. But it’s tremendously liberating that I can [now] suggest the things that we do. That’s the difference. You’re not waiting for a manifesto, waiting for the minister. You can say: 'I think this.'"

Learning new skills
"I wasn’t a campaigner by background. In government, that’s what ministers do. You may provide them with the evidence, the ammunition, but you’re not the person on the podium, speaking passionately about the subject."

Her priorities when she joined the National Trust
"The area where I think our founders would throw their hands up in horror, because actually it’s the thing they cared about, was the state of the countryside, biodiversity, the surveys showing that 60% of species are in decline. The National Trust is one of the largest national landowners. If we can’t make a contribution to turning round that decline, who can? That set us a very clear priority for the next 10 years. I also worry about the fact that there are still many people in Britain who think that the country, the historic houses, are not for them but for another group of people."

Whether the National Trust should campaign 
"We will always need to, occasionally, wave a flag on a policy issue. I write to ministers – not constantly, but often. I believe it is perfectly valid to campaign, but not to become a campaigning organisation. We are not, and should never be, a Greenpeace. That’s not our job. But we can show what good looks like and work with others to make a difference. In recent years, planning and the gradual erosion of the planning system has been our biggest concern."

Misconceptions about the National Trust 
"Because we have the word 'national' in our title, people think that in some way we are connected to government. We’re not. Our fundraising team were doing some focus groups, and asked what people thought about us being a charity – at which the group said: “No, don’t become a charity, you’ll just send out free pens and spend too much on administration.” 

Misconceptions about the civil service
"When I arrived at the Trust several people said: 'It must be lovely to come to an organisation where everyone really cares about what they do.' I always thought: 'Good heavens. I’ve worked for 30 years in an organisation where people really care about what they do.' It made me realise that people look on the civil service and don’t realise that it is, in the same way as working for a charity, a kind of calling. You do it because you want to do some good for the public.

Her government contacts
"I absolutely don’t believe in trading on old contacts, but it does mean occasionally you can ring someone up and say: 'Can you just tell me what is happening? It’s all gone quiet on this topic or that topic.' And you understand the pressure on ministers. You can get inside their mind a bit."

The best minister she worked for
"Michael Heseltine. Undoubtedly. He shaped my view of what a really good minister looks like. I was the junior private secretary in his office in the very early 1980s in the Department for the Environment, and it was great to work for a minister who had a very clear idea about how he would approach problems. He took decisions very promptly, respected officials, worked with them as a team. You also knew that when he went off to Cabinet he had political influence and it would probably happen. It’s exciting when you know your minister will go to Cabinet and win the day, as opposed to vaguely argue for something, probably be defeated, and come back with their tail between their legs."

The pressure of being perm sec at the Home Office
"The issue – and [former Home Office perm sec] David Normington said this to me when I arrived – is that in the Home Office every issue is difficult and contested. He said that success at the Home Office is when your press cuttings are that thick but not that thick. What I am proud of is that when we had a crisis… effectively something then happened and then it did go quiet. Even in that relatively short period of time we dealt with things in a really professional way."

Being a role model for women 
"I always thought that women have to show other women that being a permanent secretary is an enjoyable thing to do, and I sometimes wonder whether some women looked up to us and thought: 'Blimey, do they look as though they are enjoying it?' I always thought I have to look, even in the tough times, as though I am really enjoying it. I wonder whether some of the women just looked at us and thought: “I don’t know whether actually this job is particularly enjoyable… perhaps I’ll go and do something more enjoyable instead.”

Francis Maude’s reform agenda
"I do think the civil service, from the coalition government onwards, lost self-confidence. We had a very confrontational civil service minister in Francis Maude. I regret the fact that we didn’t, as an organisation, as an institution, grab the reform agenda ourselves and run with it more than we did. We allowed ourselves to be kind of responsive rather than come forward as collectively as we could well have done. We lost the agenda, we gave it up, and I think that disillusioned some people."

Regrets from her time in Whitehall
"I remember at a junior level thinking that that particular minister or senior official was talking to a member staff in a way that was bullying or inappropriate and I didn’t stand up for them. It makes me think, should I occasionally have said: 'Don’t talk to X like that. You may be the director general or the minister or the perm sec, but that doesn’t fit with civil service values.' I think sometimes, in the civil service, we are just a bit too deferential."

Whether she wanted to become cabinet secretary
"One of the bits of advice I give my children is don’t apply for a job which you don’t actually want to do, because you will find yourself having got it and then not wanting to do it. Would it have been wonderful to be Helen Ghosh, the first female cabinet secretary? Fabulous to be that person. Would I have found it an interesting job in the long run? I don’t know."

Whether she accused the prime minster of running an old Etonian clique
"I did not make those comments. I was giving a talk about things I had learnt in government. I said all politicians work on the basis of networks. And I said that’s as true of the 18th century, the Whigs and Tories, as it was of Brown, Blair and, I said, of Cameron with his Etonian friends or whatever they are. A journalist in the audience who happened to be a friend of my daughter – then – picked it up and twisted it into criticising Cameron and his Etonian clique."

How long she intends to stay at the National Trust 
"I am enjoying it enormously. One of the things I did learn from being at Defra for five years was that unlike most of the civil service career where you are moved every couple of years and never really get to see anything through, it’s a lot of fun seeing things through. I wouldn’t necessarily say 10 years, but several years yet."


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