By Daniel Bond

29 Jan 2016

Ex-civil service head Lord Kerslake talks to Daniel Bond about the Trade Union Bill, Freedom of Information – and why he is using his platform in the House of Lords as a chance to speak his mind 

Bob Kerslake is clearly enjoying life unshackled from Whitehall. The man who, until the autumn of 2014, served as the head of the civil service, with its rigid code of careful impartiality, has wasted no time finding his voice in the House of Lords.  

The crossbench peer has taken on roles as chair of both the Peabody housing association and King’s College Hospital, and is leading no less than three reviews – a cross-party inquiry into devolution, the London Housing Commission (established by the IPPR think tank) and a review of the powers and remit of the Treasury, commissioned in the autumn by shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

But it’s the former senior civil servant’s outspoken comments on his former colleagues at the top of government – and in particular his claim that the Trade Union Bill and mooted changes to Freedom of Information laws are evidence of a “worrying authoritarian streak” from ministers – that have made headlines.

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“I decided when I came into the Lords that I would not look to be high profile, but I wouldn’t shy away from saying what I thought about the issues,” he explains. “I didn’t come in thinking ‘I’m going to intervene and be vocal quickly’. But the issues have driven me to speak.” 

He adds: “I genuinely feel that when you add up a set of things, including the Trade Union Bill, the government shows a worrying authoritarian streak. So I can either stay silent or not. I’ve dealt with the trade unions many times, I’ve had some quite bruising encounters with them. But what’s happening here is not balanced or right, so I ought to say so.” 

All governments, he says, “tend to become less good at listening and more distant as time goes on”. “That doesn’t worry me, because in a way the electorate will reach its own view on that. But what really worries me are actions that are taken to undermine people who have different views. I’m a passionate believer in a pluralist society. And I really worry about things moving in a counter direction to that.” 

In particular, he cites the impact of the Trade Union Bill on Labour’s finances, and the government’s attempts to weaken the ability of the House of Lords to veto secondary legislation. “These smack to me of a government that’s uncomfortable with challenge.” 

Are those qualities he noticed, I ask, when he worked closely with David Cameron at the top of government?  “We’ve all signed the Official Secrets Act,” he replies, with a wry smile. “It seems reasonable for me to comment on what this new government is doing, but I’m careful not to comment on times when I was inside. I don’t think that would be right.” 

Despite leading a review of the Treasury for Labour, Kerslake insists his political independence remains intact. The crossbench peer has drafted in figures from across local government, civil society and the private sector – including Alan Buckle, the former deputy chairman of KPMG, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and Oxford professor Simon Wren Lewis – to sit on the review’s panel, which will take evidence from politicians from all parties, including former chancellors. 

The starting point of the review for Kerslake is, he says, the question of “how well the Treasury performs its role of promoting sustainable, fair growth”. “We don’t start with any pre-judged outcomes,” he says. “It’s clear that the Treasury is a really important institution, but it’s grown in power and range of what it covers. It’s grown into areas around local growth, devolution… it has a regulatory role, a finance ministry role, and an economic ministry role. So it’s the right time to look at these issues.” 

The Treasury’s structures, he fears, may be too narrowly focused on the current budget deficit. “There is a reasonable question to ask about whether we’re focused on a wider range of issues than how the deficit looks. So how well are we exploring how private debt is moving? How well are we looking at the balance of the economy across the country? How well are we equipped to look at the issues around longer-term commitments and liabilities such as the movements in pension funds liabilities, or student funds? The test really, I guess, is how well the Treasury is connected to thinking about these other issues.” 

Kerslake welcomes the shadow chancellor’s recent attempts to shift the economic debate in favour of “fairer growth”. McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have floated a number of radical policies in recent weeks, including plans to block firms from paying dividends if they fail to pay the Living Wage, and a proposed new “right to own”, offering workers first rights to buy out a company that is being sold or floated on the stock exchange. Will Kerslake’s review look at the feasibility of these policies under current Treasury structures? 

“It’s for them to do the policy,” he replies. “We’re not defining Labour’s policy on these issues. The question we have to ask is how well equipped is the Treasury to give evidence-based advice and insight on those issues to whoever is the chancellor. Is it equipped to carry out the ambitions of a future government in terms of these issues?

“But the review and the report will be of interest, I hope, to all parties and people not in any party. These are issues that are relevant to whoever is in power.”

Kerslake worked with McDonnell during the latter’s time as chair of the finance committee at the GLC in the 1980s, when the crossbench peer was “a lowly accountant”. “I remember him then as being a guy you could work with, who was diligent and practical about the way he approached things,” he says. “That was my experience of him then and that’s my experience of him now taking this review forward.”

Is he surprised to come across McDonnell again as shadow chancellor after all these years? “I couldn’t comment on that,” he laughs. 

Kerslake refuses to be drawn on his own politics, but admits the offer to discuss them is “tempting”. “I genuinely want to approach from a crossbench route,” he says, and points out that – despite accusations of Labour sympathies – he has publicly backed much of the government’s agenda on cities and devolution, singling out the “great job” being done by communities secretary Greg Clark.  

“People will say what they want about you, you’ve got to live with that. You just have to say what you think and try to be clear on why you’re saying it,” he says. 

“But on something like FoI, that’s not a party issue. I’d hope there would be as many Conservatives who see the importance of freedom of information. There are some ex-, very reputable journalists in the government, like Michael Gove, and I can’t believe that he doesn’t see the importance. I’m sure he does.”

He says he is “very concerned” about the growing perception that “all public servants favour some weakening or watering down” of FoI, and rubbishes claims of a “chilling effect” on the civil service. The FoI Act is now, he says, “a pretty mature piece of legislation”, with effective safeguards to protect civil servants giving ministers advice. 

“In truth, the risks to a civil servant of their advice being exposed are very low. If they’re worried about the chilling effect, it’s more in their heads than on the reality of what happens,” he says. 

“There’s no great reason why they should be worried. It’s a bit controversial to say it, but they’re more at risk, bluntly, from a minister giving an off-the-record view [to a journalist] than they are from FoI.” 

Weakening the legislation, he warns, would be a mistake at a time of growing mistrust between the public and their institutions. “Freedom of Information is a really powerful shift of power to the citizen, and the taxpayer. We’re seeing a widening gap of trust. And if ministers and public servants start to close down information, that can only add to that problem.

“I think openness in the end will create greater trust and ownership of government. I get that there’s a cost to it. It can be frustrating, occasionally. But the benefits far outweigh the costs.”  

This article first appeared in CSW's sister magazine, The House


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