By Jess Bowie

29 Jul 2015

Jess Bowie breaks bread with the outspoken chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

After five years chairing the Public Administration Select Committee, the independent-minded Tory MP for Harwich and North Essex is now at the helm of the re-vamped PACAC – where he will continue to scrutinise the quality of administration in the civil service and examine constitutional issues, too.  

The restaurant
Smith Square Cafe & Restaurant: Located in the crypt below the baroque Saint John’s, Smith Square concert hall, this cosy eatery is a stone’s throw from Westminster. The appetising fare changes with the seasons.

The menu
Starter: Chargrilled tiger prawns with fennel and baby squid; English asparagus with almond and sherry dressing  
Main: Herb-fed chicken, Provençal tomato and green olive tapenade, new potatoes; Globe artichoke, chickpea and preserved lemon tagine
​We drank: Mineral water 

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We discussed:

Select committees:
"I think they will continue to go from strength to strength. Our role is scrutiny at its most fundamental. A special adviser told me during the last parliament: “You have no idea what a galvanising effect just the thought that a select committee might be looking at a particular area of a department has on the officials concerned. I think we underestimate how terrifying this scrutiny can be. And one or two committees sometimes act very destructively. The important thing is that scrutiny should be a positive experience for those being scrutinised, not something to fear. Actually, if scrutiny is a punishing process, you get worse decisions."

Permanent secretaries 
"This row last summer, over perm secs’ job descriptions including something about balancing the short-term pressures of politicians against the long term interests of their departments…I mean that is exactly what they have to do! Ideally, ministers would also be thinking about the long-term interests of the department. But if they’re not, which, it has to be said, sometimes happens, it’s not an act of insurrection or a constitutional abomination [for perm secs to do so] – it is exactly that tension which has created one of the best systems of government in the world."

"I would say to ministers: you need to get into officials’ shoes and understand what it feels like to work for you. And you need to mentor them in their tasks, and understand their problems and their career aspirations. That’s leadership. Civil servants are not just there to take orders. I mean, imagine what kind of organisation you would like to work in – one where your boss understands your concerns and supports you, or one where you’re just given orders. Leadership is not just telling people what to do, it is about leading a whole organisation. Ministers need to understand that, and then I think the senior officials would find it easier to lead their departments."

‘Recalcitrant’ officials
"Nobody joins the civil service to become a resistant official, and nobody joins the civil service to pursue a political agenda – you wouldn’t get through the selection process if they got a hint of that. They don’t join for the money either. People join the civil service out of a sense of excitement and vocation for helping to run this great country. It is therefore a naturally mission-based organisation. There is nothing more exciting for officials than to find themselves working for a very high energy minister with lots of ideas and clear direction. Even if it’s completely the opposite of what they were doing six months ago, civil servants respond wonderfully to strong and effective leadership." 

Referendums and purdah
"I think there’s a danger that the government will be accused of trying to create a rigged in-out referendum on our membership of the EU. I’m also very suspicious of the Labour Party’s abandonment of their principles to support the disapplication of Section 125 [the purdah clause] of the Political Parties and Referendum Act 2000 (PPERA). I think that was their pro-European prejudices getting the better of their judgement on the substance of a fair referendum. I hope they will relent on that. To get rid of the whole of section 125 on the premise that you can’t carry on the normal course of government in relation to the EU…

"I don’t know where this advice has come from, but I think it’s completely wrong. It seems the government wants officials to be free to carry out ministers’ wishes, even if those ministers’ wishes are intending to influence the perception of the referendum question. If you get rid of purdah, it means ministers would be able to use their private offices, their special advisers and media advisers, and the machinery of government to issue press releases and effectively campaign from their ministerial offices. I can’t believe that is their intention."

Whether he is now a paid-up member of the awkward squad
"I don’t think there’s any 'now' about it. I’ve always been fairly independent, but I never saw the purpose of coming into politics in order to just comply with other people’s wishes. Yes, politics is a team game. But on the EU Referendum Bill, for example, I think we can improve this bill and get a fairer referendum than we would have got if we hadn’t had this scrutiny."

Civil service pay
"It’s quite obvious that the pay structures in the civil service are not fit for purpose. It should be possible for people to get rises – significant rises – for staying in post for a long period. We want senior responsible owners of major projects to stay in post for the life of the project. But the only way to get a pay increase is to keep moving around. And we wonder why there’s so much turbulence in the civil service… You know, if anybody’s left in a job for two years, they begin to feel as though they’ve been left on the shelf! It’s ridiculous and we need to address it. There are things called “key responsibility allowances”, but they’re minuscule, and the bonus structure is minute.

"I mean there’s one case in the Ministry of Defence where [chief of defence materiel] Bernard Gray comes to me saying he’s trying to keep a senior civil servant in his job. The official in question is controlling about £600m worth of defence programme and a large team of people, and he’s negotiating with the major defence prime contractors – with people on hundreds of thousands a year. And this man is being paid £84,000 a year. Ok, that’s a very generous salary, but his peer group in the private sector are doing so much better than him, and he’s gained all the skills and experience that make him very employable outside. But the Treasury’s reaction to this was: 'Well don’t worry, if he does leave, you’ll be able to hire in somebody from outside and because you’re doing that, we’ll be able to pay a proper salary.' Why can’t they pay the guy they’ve got the proper salary to keep him there? It’s just stupid."

The recurrence of ‘Bernards’ in the work of Richard Curtis
"When I first met [my wife] Anne [Baroness Jenkin], she invited me to a sort of weekend house party. Richard Curtis was there, along with other friends. They couldn’t quite believe that Anne was going to go out with a boy called Bernard. And obviously we were in the first flush, and I was the centre of her attention, so there might have been a little bit of jealousy."

[On whether Jenkin “stole” Anne from Curtis] 
"No, I think it’s all been hopelessly exaggerated."

The inspiration for Four Weddings and a Funeral 
"When we were standing in the receiving line greeting people at our wedding reception, there was Richard Curtis a few feet away, watching with a notebook. Finally we asked what he was doing. He said: 'Well, it’s an idea I’ve got for a script'. Later, during Anne’s speech, one of the old family friends collapsed – he didn’t die – but it was a bit scary. She actually thought somebody was deliberately creating a commotion so she said: 'Oh, has somebody from Labour come to heckle?'. So there were several details… And certainly somebody collapsing during the speeches – that’s the funeral."

[On whether anyone was hiding in a cupboard on the wedding night, pretending to have lost a pencil] 
"Well, I don’t remember Richard Curtis being there…"

To book a table at St John’s, Smith Square, visit; PACAC has now launched an inquiry into the EU Referendum Bill, purdah and civil service impartiality

Read the most recent articles written by Jess Bowie - Lunch with... civil service skills evangelist Pamela Dow

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