Former health secretary Andrew Lansley: select committee grilling of civil servants likely to get tougher

"Robespierre terror" of Public Accounts Committee under former chair Margaret Hodge will be copied by more MPs, former health secretary warns officials

By matt.foster

07 Jul 2015

Senior civil servants must get used to the “terror” of being hauled before increasingly tough parliamentary select committees, Andrew Lansley has warned.

The former Conservative health secretary – who spent eleven years in the civil service, including a stint as principal private secretary to then-trade secretary Norman Tebbit – told an audience of officials this morning that the civil service had been opened up to new levels of scrutiny in recent years.

And he took a swipe at the Labour former chair of the public accounts committee Margaret Hodge for her sometimes abrasive style when questioning officials.

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Likening Hodge's time at the helm of PAC to reprisals instigated in the wake of the French revolution, Lansley said: 

“The Robespierre terror initiated by Margaret Hodge as chair of the public accounts committee may have ended, but that doesn’t mean the public accounts committee is going to go back to behaving in the way they did in the past.

"And I have to tell you, I think other select committees will try to replicate that. They will seek to get beyond the ministers – who actually should be in front of the other select committees – to the civil servants in order to exact that kind of terror. So do be aware of that.”

Lansley was speaking at an event – organised by the FDA union and Civil Service World’s parent company Dods – offering advice on how civil servants can rise to the senior ranks in Whitehall.

The former health secretary said that officials now had to be “more resilient” in the face of greater “media penetration” of the civil service since his time as a principal private secretary.

“The media are penetrating through to civil servants where once upon a time they never did,” he said. “Back in my day [then-Cabinet secretary] Robert Armstrong was the only civil servant anybody had ever heard of. But now the civil service is out there.”

'Intellectual firepower'

Lansley also used his speech to stress the value that ministers continued to place on those civil servants who could provide their departments with  “intellectual firepower”.

“It isn’t the job of ministers to be clever,” he said. “They might be, they might not be. But that isn’t their job. 

“Very often the media get very obsessed with the intelligence of ministers. In truth, some of the best ministers just have an extremely well developed sense of prejudice - not in its pejorative sense - but having a prior view about the world that enables them to make judgements about the issues that are presented to them. 

He added: “It is very easy, as a minister, to lapse into thinking that you’re somehow the clever person who is presented with all the information and you have to work it out better than the civil service. As a minister that is almost certainly never going to be the case. 

“The people working for you as civil servants are almost certain, in at least some respects, to be cleverer than you are. So as a minister you’ve got to know that your job is to bring that judgement rather than to bring that intellectual firepower.“

The former health secretary said the civil service must continue to be a place where “practical” and “applied” intelligence was  “appreciated and advanced”, and backed policymaking as a profession in its own right, even if what that entailed remained poorly understood beyond the world of Whitehall.

“There are an awful lot of people in business who think because they know about a subject they know how to make the policy on a subject, but they don’t at all,” he said, recalling his own time as deputy director of the British Chambers of Commerce.

“Policymaking is a professional skill, just as managing a large organisation is a professional skill. And there are an awful lot of people out there who thinks politics is accessible to anybody as long as they’ve been around a bit, and who think that policymaking is available to anybody as long as they have experience of something. It isn’t true. 

“For the best kind of policymaking, you often need a combination of somebody who has experience of the issue, and somebody who has high-level policymaking skills.”

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