Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the Government Economic Service, tells Sam Macrory why, despite the tumultuous times ahead, she would welcome a return to Whitehall…and not only to increase the number of senior women by one
The civil service may be battle-hardened after more than half a decade at the sharp end of the government’s reform agenda, but the EU referendum campaign unleashed a barrage of bruising criticism.
When the Treasury published documents to demonstrate that Britain was better off in the European Union, those on the other side of the argument were quick to cry foul, accusing the civil service of bias, of being an organ of propaganda, of skewing the statistics. And, however right their analysis may have been, in the words of leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove: “People in this country have had enough of experts”.
So who, in their right mind, would want to sign up to a job in Whitehall?
Step forward Vicky Pryce, one-time chief economic adviser at the Department for Trade and Industry and then joint head of the Government Economic Service from 2007 to 2010.
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“I don’t know whether I would be offered anything but if I were then I definitely would,” says Pryce when asked whether she would like to return to the civil service. Now a board member at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, her career also included senior roles at KPMG and London Economics, but it’s her time in the public sector that Pryce looks back on most fondly.
“Obviously you get paid a lot more in the private sector, and loads of people come into the civil service from outside and it doesn’t work. But in my case it did. I learned the language. I fitted in. I think the civil service teaches you a huge amount about how to get things done. People do come in and get spat out again because they just can’t adjust to the culture, but I found it very interesting and I found the people I worked with amazing.
“The way the referendum campaign was run didn’t do economists or the civil service much good. Referendums tend to polarise, people lash out”
“I was there during the [economic] crisis of course. It was the most interesting job. All economists are perceived to be back room boys and girls doing all the analysis and being very clever but not understanding anything about real life, but what they all really want to have is influence and civil service jobs, in most cases, give you the ability at least to have influence.”
Pitch over, Pryce smiles. It’s something she hasn’t done much of since Britain voted to leave the EU. Piles of briefing documents and newspapers line the entrance hall of her grand Clapham home: Pryce, who was on a speaking engagement at the LSE on the night of the vote, had been immersed in the referendum. Greek-born, she is an EU enthusiast, but it is her economic expertise which convinced her of the case to Remain. “I can’t think of anything positive about this result,” she grumbles while preparing a restorative strong coffee. She made repeated warnings about the financial consequences of leaving: was no one listening, or did they just not care?
“It is a very, very strange thing in my view, the way the campaign was run,” Pryce argues. “It seems that if you are a politician you can say things which may not be correct. You are corrected, but you can say it… such as the £350m [the figure Leave campaigners said was sent to the EU each week by the UK] which was very clearly not true but was on the battle bus. It’s entirely possible to say that the Remain side did not, perhaps, repeat sufficiently what the benefits of being in the EU are, but if you’re in a position where everything the Treasury says, a very good piece of work, a quite serious piece of work… and all you get from the other side is ‘oh, flawed model’. You hear something and then the other side just dismiss it and say it will all be fine without telling us how.”
During the campaign a pair of Treasury reports were deployed by the Remain campaign. The first, published in April, claimed that households would be £4,300 a year worse off and the economy 6% smaller by 2030 should Britain vote to leave the EU, while further analysis in May warned that a year-long recession could follow Brexit. “More propaganda”, was Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson’s take, while his fellow Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith was quick to reject the “unfair and biased” work.
Pryce, however, defends the Treasury approach. “I know George Osborne said there will be a post-mortem but in terms of what was done analytically I am very, very happy. All the models are perfectly valid. I think the civil service has done the right thing and produced the right analysis. I think they did their best and I feel for them, really, because they were attacked. The civil service was attacked repeatedly during the campaign. Perhaps it’s inevitable when you have a campaign like that – you lash out left, right and centre.”
When reminded of Michael Gove’s analysis of expert analysis, Pryce smiles, but only briefly.
“It was funny in a way but very sad in others. The way the campaign was run didn’t do economists or the civil service much good. This is because of referendums. They tend to polarise. I can’t think this could have been a particularly happy time being in the civil service. Then you had departments where the secretary of state was on the Brexit side, so I can’t imagine the difficulties permanent secretaries must have had at this time, dealing with that, getting briefed separately about things to do with what the Treasury was up to. It wasn’t a very edifying campaign… or easy for civil servants to manage. Hats off to them that they have survived to the extent they have.”
The immediate future for the civil service, says Pryce, won’t be easy. “Any alternative we end up with is worse and the uncertainty we end up with in the short term is pretty bad,” she says, asserting that “what will suffer is infrastructure spending…one would question whether a number of projects that are planned will happen in this timeframe. I would be astonished if we don’t end up with a number being delayed or postponed."
Also up for review could be the government’s civil service reform agenda. Headcount is 18% smaller than it was in 2010, but with the complexities of Brexit set to dominate, will new expertise be needed, and new staff required to cover colleagues seconded to more Brexit-focused work?
Pryce admits that she is “worried… we are going to need quite a lot of people doing the bills and so on”, and she warns that downsizing, and downgrading of roles, will have to be reversed. “I’ve already seen, in some departments, getting rid of chief economists and downgrading their positions, and it does worry me. Perhaps decisions will be made in the future which will be done on no evidence? Of course it always happens at times – politics wins, and that’s how it should be at times. And also that the various departments might get more politicised. There had been some concerns that had been the way we were moving under the previous coalition government. I would imagine a new government will have to look at that all over again. It’s not clear what is set in stone.”
“If women are there and the talent is there, please, please, politicians, use them properly”
The government’s reform agenda has been suggested as a reason for the drop in the number of women being appointed to senior civil service roles, with former Home Office permanent secretary Helen Ghosh recently questioning whether women in the civil service asked themselves if they would rather “go and do something more enjoyable instead”.
But, Pryce suggests, if Brexit-triggered slower growth affects private-sector jobs, then women “won’t want to leave in a hurry”. However, she then pointedly adds: “If they are there and the talent is there, please, please, politicians, use them properly.”
She is quick to praise the “exemplary” good practices in the public sector – working conditions, job shares, promotions on maternity leave – but adds that such a mindset “should really have penetrated by now to the top, yet it isn’t happening”.
Pryce is “horrified” by the fall in the number of female permanent secretaries from eight in 2009 to just three today, and points the finger of blame at the Treasury for failing to promote female talent. “The Treasury, which tends to send over a number of its good people to run various departments, has tended in the past to be quite male-dominated. That has been changing but perhaps not enough. There has to be an elite from there.”
She also feels that the civil service could have demonstrated its commitment to promoting female talent by appointing a woman as either head of the civil service or cabinet secretary when the post was split in 2011.
“That would have been a great opportunity to have a woman do this. There could be one woman, one man. At least that would have encouraged people to think a woman could be right at the top, but we just lost that. And since it has reverted to one person and it’s a man – which is a real shame – it’s still an issue.”
While in her book Why Women Need Quotas Pryce argues that quotas should be used to fill senior executive positions to ensure a permanent change in the culture of organisations, Pryce did it all on her own. A mother of five who took just a few weeks of maternity leave for her first four children and just a few days for her fifth, Pryce has achieved a glittering career as an economist, high-flying civil servant, respected author and broadcaster.
“My jail experience was very important because I can bring my economics to bear and I have been vocal about penal reform”
These are the biographical details that she wants to focus on, but it is the unravelling of her personal life at the start of this decade which hurled her unforgivingly into the spotlight. As her marriage to former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne lurched from painful public collapse to the courtroom, Pryce was accused of having accepted speeding points actually incurred by Huhne in 2003. In 2012 both were found guilty of perverting the course of justice.
She served two months of an eight-month prison sentence, and while happy to be asked about that difficult phase in her life, Pryce is quick to move any answers away from personal territory.
Shortly before we meet she has been described as a “former jailbird” in a local newspaper account of a talk she has given. Does that hurt? “I don’t mind what people say,” Pryce insists. “The important thing is I seem to have been accepted as having done that. The experience was very important because I can bring my economics to bear and I have been vocal about penal reform. I’m OK. Some people chose to refer to me in a certain way, others don’t. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I feel very passionate about penal reform.”
Asked whether prison has changed her, for better or worse, she gives a technical rather than personal reply: “Of course, you learn something from having been there, done it yourself, but what it did highlight is that evidence-based policy is rather important.”
As she prepares to set off for a journey along the Northern Line for a meeting in the City, Pryce agrees that she is now recognised more often in public, but she puts it down to her role as an economist.
“People say, ‘I have seen you on television talking about economics.’ People think they know me. I don’t bother to explain. They come up to me and say ‘I have seen you on blah blah.’ With the referendum, I have done loads of debates.”
“This is the time for civil servants to show what they can do"
Resilient, recovered, more in demand than ever before. It’s exactly, says Pryce, what the civil service can prove to be as Whitehall grapples with the referendum result.
“This is the time for civil servants to show what they can do,” Pryce declares. “All the experience of decades dealing with the EU can now be put together, and the various options can be properly analysed.
She adds: "A lot of our civil servants and our ambassadors and people we have in the European Commission have dealt with these issues many times before [...] They can prove how useful they are. It’s a huge opportunity.”
The referendum did not treat the civil service well, but perhaps the experience will make it stronger after all. No wonder Vicky Pryce is keen to return.
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