The public interest defence for civil service whistleblowers should be restored, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg said today in a speech to the Institute of Government.
The full copy of Nick Clegg's speech is below:
These are extraordinary times for government. An end to years of rising budgets; A looming fiscal contraction as we tackle a budget deficit that, at more than £170bn a year, stands at 12-13% of GDP; An election battle already underway. As your own ‘Shaping Up’ report shows, any new Government is going to have to rethink how the machinery of Government works.
The Liberal Democrats believe this election is an opportunity to turn the page on decades of relentless centralisation within government.
Centralisation that has stifled innovation in our public services, diminished accountability within them, and that has distorted the role of Whitehall too.
Today I would like to outline our vision for better government based on a simple principle: effective government is government that knows when to relinquish control.
We need a radical dispersal of power away from the centre. The consequences for our central state apparatus will be threefold: One: an end to the quango state. Two: a slimmer Whitehall, no longer responsible for micromanaging day to day policies across Britain. Three: better protection for the civil service against undue interference from its political masters. After addressing each of these I will also look at the related issue of government’s monopoly over power within parliament; And the steps we must take to correct that imbalance.
The conventional argument between the Labour and the Conservative parties is whether the state is “good” or “bad”.
The Conservatives argue that less government is always good, as if the contraction of Whitehall is an end in itself. The Labour party defends government intervention, as if the extension of Whitehall is an end in itself.
I believe both parties are ducking the real question: where does power lie?
I want to see a dramatic reduction in the powers of the central Whitehall state, in order to hand back powers to communities, local authorities, families and individuals.
The objective at all times must be to return power to the lowest level possible. That is what lies at the heart of a liberal approach to governance.
Labour is wrong to defend the centralised status quo. But equally the Conservatives are misguided in believing that making cuts at the centre will lead to a spontaneous resettlement of powers in society.
Paring back the powers of Whitehall is a necessary, but not sufficient, step towards decentralisation. It must be accompanied by a plan for real constitutional and political reform.
Where powers are taken away from central Government, they must be deliberately handed down to communities. Faith in philanthropy, community groups and volunteering is all very well. But if it is not complimented by a clear plan to restore formal powers – including, crucially, over how money is raised and spent – then any talk of decentralisation will be no more than a nostalgic sham.
I believe in a radical re-empowerment of Britain’s communities – not cheap slogans without any plan to deliver real change.
The twentieth century witnessed the transformation of government in Britain. Resurrecting the nation in the aftermath of two world wars required a new interventionism. The welfare state was born, and with it one of the greatest triumphs in modern social history: the duty on government to provide universal care, education and support.
That role has, however, been abused over time. Successive administrations have trespassed further into people’s lives, each picking up from where the last left off, each assuming more power than the last.
As a result, we have seen a massive expansion of the infrastructure of central government. There are now 790 listed quangos, all taking decisions on behalf of government. Some estimates say in reality there are more than 1,160. A huge slice of the governing party is involved formally in government; Labour has appointed more than 150 ministers, whips and parliamentary private secretaries; that’s nearly half of their MPs.
Paradoxically, within that sprawling structure power is increasingly hoarded at the centre. Not just with Ministers, but increasingly with Number 10. Under this administration the number of staff in Downing Street has doubled. Again, as the Institute explains in ‘Shaping Up’, the office of the British Prime Minister holds a concentration of formal power greater than that of almost any other country in the developed world.
For the British people it is the worst of all worlds: Disempowered by top-down lines of command and control. Centralised public services unresponsive to local needs.
Our health system is a prime example. The NHS is one of the biggest employers in the world, up there with the Indian State Railway and the Chinese Army. Yet, within this great organisation, the only person who can be held to account for the delivery of health services is the Secretary of State.
Like all constituency MPs, I regularly go on bended knee to the Chief Executive of my local hospitals and Primary Care Trust in Sheffield to make representations about the delivery of local healthcare on behalf of my constituents.
Yet the Chief Executives – dedicated and highly professional though they undoubtedly are – remain completely impervious to the normal pressures of democratic accountability.
Their formal lines of accountability don’t even come from the people of Sheffield, but from another unaccountable quango, the Strategic Health Authority, based in York.
The SHA, like the PCT, is an appointed body which answers not to the people and patients of the Yorkshire and Humber region, but to senior officials in the Department of Health.
They, in turn, are finally answerable to the only – the sole – democratically elected figure in the NHS, the Secretary of State.
This preposterous arrangement is not only undemocratic, it is explicitly designed to send policy signals from the wrong source in the NHS: downwards from Whitehall, rather than upwards from the patients and users of the service.
As a result, innovation is stifled, priorities are distorted, and the capacity of doctors to make clinical judgements about their patients is undermined.
Perversely, a bid to meet targets has encouraged gaming in some hospitals. There are cases of extra staff being drafted into A&E wards to ensure patients are treated within four hours, at the expense of cancelled operations elsewhere.
The same problems can be found in education. Labour has introduced an Education Bill every year since coming into power. Along with 12 green papers, 9 white papers and more than 1800 statutory instruments. The latest Bill gives ministers a staggering 150 powers to interfere, while schools remain hamstrung to respond to diverse pupil needs.
Has it worked? A fifth of 11 year olds still leave primary school unable to read or write properly. Only a quarter of the poorest children get five good GCSEs. The UK remains near the bottom of international tables for young people not in education, employment or training.
Confronted with these failings, time after time governments convince themselves they can improve public services by re-jigging Whitehall:
By bridging gaps, joining things up, communicating more. Certainly the machine must be well-oiled; but those changes alone will not suffice.
Ministers do not think imaginatively about public service reform in part because of fear of the accusation of a “postcode lottery”, a favoured media refrain.
But decades of centralisation have not led to uniformity in our services. Schools, hospitals, public transport, policing, housing – the quality still varies enormously in different parts of the country.
Persistent health inequality illustrates the point starkly: a child born in Glasgow today will still die on average 14 years earlier than a child born in Kensington and Chelsea.
Pretending that all areas and all people are the same can only exacerbate these failures.
We have the worst of all worlds: over centralised governance of our public services; unjust and unequal outcomes on the ground.
The Liberal Democrats believe in a radical dispersal of power: shifting it downwards, where it can be responsive to local needs and circumstances.
The central state has a vital role – of course. In addition to providing security for the country, it must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis, to provide the public infrastructure necessary for society to function, to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals, and to oversee core standards and entitlements.
But once those building blocks are in place, the state must allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off.
Reversing a generation of state-centred thinking won’t be easy. If anything, the presumption in favour of centralised solutions has become stronger not weaker, at least in the way policy dilemmas are portrayed in the press.
Whenever something goes wrong the media will immediately look to the Minister for explanation and for action. But while it is understandable to approach radical decentralisation with some uncertainty, I have little sympathy for the claim it cannot be done.
A glance across to other parts of Europe shows that it can. Years ago I conducted a study comparing school systems in different European countries. Very early on it became clear that the best performing countries were those where schools were not subject to extensive central targets or arbitrary assessment.
The jurisdiction of central government was restricted to enforcing minimum standards and countering any unfairness in the distribution of public money to pupils;
Beyond that staff were able to tailor teaching to suit their classes. The improved results for pupils, especially those from socially deprived backgrounds, were striking.
International success stories should guide reform of our health services too. Modelled on the decentralised health care system in Denmark, my party believes we need to break down the monolithic structure of the NHS.
We propose directly elected local health boards be given control over Primary Care Trusts, restoring local accountability.
Not only does a similar system work in Denmark: it is the only country in Europe where health inequality has not been rising.
Crucially, learning from international experiences would mean decentralising public finances. 75% of local authorities’ income comes from central coffers. And they have very little say over how it is spent. As the Total Place interim findings show, of the £7000 spent per person, per year on public services, councils have discretion over about £350.
In terms of the proportion of tax raised centrally, the only European country more centralised than the UK is Malta. Home to fewer people than the London Borough of Croydon.
But money follows power; devoid of the freedom to raise the first, councils are unable to exercise the last. Gordon Brown and David Cameron may parrot the language of localism, but their refusal to let go of the purse strings exposes the insincerity of that commitment.
For our part, the Liberal Democrats have laid out three steps to decentralise control of public finances: One – immediately localise business rates; Two – phase out or streamline government offices for the regions and regional development agencies; Transferring the bulk of their responsibilities for public funds to local authorities. Three – move, ultimately, to a system of local taxation based on the ability to pay.
So what will a reconfiguration of power in which it is dispersed away from central government, mean for our central state apparatus?
Central government will be reformed in three key ways: An end to the rule of the quango. A reinvention of Whitehall. The depoliticisation of our civil service.
One: quangos. The proliferation of unelected bodies across government has been one of the most regressive developments in modern British democracy.
It is a direct expression of centralisation… Reflecting a growing tendency of Ministers to outsource the day to day responsibility of decision-making whilst keeping political control over it.
This has led to the dismal spectacle of Ministers merrily blaming quangos for decisions for which they should take responsibility, and taking credit for decisions over which they shouldn’t have any say.
Not only do the 790 quangos across England and Wales cost the taxpayer tens of billions of pounds, many are extraordinarily inefficient, duplicating each other’s work and that of central government.
The Liberal Democrats have already identified 90 which we would cut, merge or cull completely... That list includes, for example, the Regional Development Agencies, the Olympic Lottery Distribution Body, and the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine.
As we would transfer more powers to local councils and communities we would be able to continue that process… Ridding government of all but the most essential organisations, ensuring that any which remain are clearly accountable to the British people.
Two: a new day job for Whitehall. Liberated from the task of micromanaging Britain, government departments will return to their essential functions: Maintaining core standards. Taking a strategic overview where we have national priorities. Enabling councils, communities and individuals to exercise power in the way I have described.
Whitehall will be in charge of air traffic control, it will not fly all the planes.
I want to be clear: I am talking about a major reorganisation of Whitehall. The Liberal Democrats would reduce the number of government departments from 24 to 14 through departmental mergers and cuts.
For example, we would create a new Department of the Nations and Regions, bringing together the ministries for local government, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We would also house responsibility for the environment, energy and transport within a single department. As a result of our restructure the number of Ministers and government whips would be reduced from 119 to 73.
That streamlining of our state apparatus and a clear sense of what Whitehall is for – crucially what it is not for – would liberate the civil service to focus on strategic priorities.
This would be complimented by a return to cabinet government; We know only too well the chaos that ensues when the whole of government has to rely on Number 10 for direction.
That brings me to number three: guarding against the political exploitation of Whitehall. Because addressing inefficiency is only one part of making Whitehall work.
We must purge the political interference that has increasingly distorted the work of the civil service.
This Labour government, first under Blair and now Brown, has always viewed Whitehall as an extension of its spin machine.
As we heard from Jonathan Baume at the weekend, and as we expect to hear in the Better Government Initiative report tomorrow, Ministers do not make decisions because they are rational or right for the country.
They do so to score points and chase headlines. That is the only direction they receive from Number 10. It is government by press release; bereft of either principle or integrity.
Of course Governments are entitled to put their case to people through the media. Of course politics infuses the decisions of Ministers – their job is precisely to provide political direction, not provide managerial expertise.
And, of course, there is a fine line between party politics and public policy – it is impossible to disentangle the two.
But Governments should not expect the civil service to do their party political work for them. And the consistency and integrity of public policy is destroyed if everything is made subservient to the day to day ratings battles of politicians.
We need a renewed commitment to the independence of the civil service and an end to the culture of spin. The Liberal Democrats would halve the number of departmental press officers, which has jumped by more than three quarters since 1998.
We would return central government spending on advertising to 1997 levels. We would reduce the number of special advisors across Government, re-establishing their traditional role as expert policy advisors.
And we would end the spectacle of taxpayers paying millions for what are obviously political jobs and should be paid for by political parties.
Not just special advisors, but party whips too.
I am pleased at the steps being taken in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to finally place the civil service on a statutory footing.
It is after all only 150 years since the case was first made in the Northcote-Trevelyan report. It is not justified however to entrench in law a right for the Prime Minister to control the appointment of officials, as the Bill does.
Further, the moves go nowhere near far enough to address one of the biggest obstacles to independence in the civil service: protection for whistleblowers.
The Chilcot Inquiry is a powerful reminder of the ambiguity that can surround the role of officials and the ease with which they can be dictated to by politicians.
Of course where national security is concerned officials should act with the national interest in mind. But equally, where there is clear need to speak out in the public interest – as with the dubious legality of the war in Iraq – officials must know they can do so free from prosecution.
The number one responsibility of civil servants must be to the people of Britain, not self serving Ministers. That is why my party would amend the Official Secrets Act to restore the public interest defence for whistleblowers that was originally removed by the Conservatives.
If that protection had been in place when the fateful decision was taken to invade Iraq Tony Blair and Gordon Brown might have been more openly challenged by officials who harboured real doubts about the war.
But without cast iron protection for whistleblowers, it was too easy for this government to bully and cajole the civil service into remaining silent about one of the greatest errors of any government in the post war period.
Finally, I would like to turn to Parliament. For the decentralisation of power I have described to be meaningful, we must break open the concentrations of power that remain in Westminster too.
First: through reform of our electoral system. Second: through reform of party funding. Third: by making the executive accountable to Parliament.
The first two are well rehearsed Liberal Democrat arguments. I find it baffling that there should be a need to say any more on the weaknesses of the first past the post system than this:
In 2005 it returned the government no more than 22% of the eligible vote. A proportional voting system is the only lasting way to ensure Governments enjoy the legitimacy of the British people.
There are other specific steps which would strengthen the accountability of politicians. For example, I had hoped for cross-party support for Liberal Democrat proposals to introduce a power of recall so that voters could sack MPs who have been shown to seriously break the rules.
But despite having given the principle their public support, when the Liberal Democrats put forward proposals on it in the House of Lords the other party leaders ensured that they were blocked.
Second, on reform of party funding: the relationship between money and power continues to hollow out our political system. in the same way as other donations.
My party remains committed, at a minimum, to the Hayden Phillips recommendations. A cap on individual donations to political parties; A cap on the amount parties can spend within an electoral cycle; And a mechanism to ensure that individual trade union members consent to donations made on their behalf. Until these reforms are made power will remain in the hands of the highest bidder. Westminster will forever find itself trapped by vested interests.
Third, reducing executive power. The rules of the game at Westminster are stacked in favour of the ruling party; parliament is rendered largely impotent to hold ministers to account.
Neutered opposition parties can do nothing to stop Government from publishing a barrage of bad-news announcements in a single day.
The lack of opportunity for scrutiny takes an almost farcical turn on Budget day. When opposition leaders are given just minutes to analyse the details of £600bn of public spending before launching into a set-piece debate.
The kind that invariably descends into facile point scoring.
Bit by bit, Westminster had been reduced from the Mother of all Parliaments to a Eunuch Parliament.
As many of you will know, last summer, prompted by the expenses scandal, the Prime Minister appointed a committee of MPs, led by Tony Wright, to address some of these issues.
An overdue but welcome decision. The Wright Committee was instructed to come up with proposals to “urgently modernise” the way the House of Commons works.
The Prime Minister’s sense of urgency has clearly faded: it’s already months since the report was published and we now have to wait another month until Parliament will consider it.
And in a truly cynical move MPs will not be able to debate the full report as Ministers will be hand-picking their favourite recommendations.
It is reported that more than half could end up in Ministers’ bins.
Reading through the Wright Report it is astonishing that these common-sense changes are needed at all. While I do not wish to diminish their importance, these are nuts and bolts reforms. If the Government cannot even implement these, what hope do we have for more ambitious change?
It is imperative that all of Wright’s recommendations are put to parliament for a full vote without delay. That must include proposals to give members of the public the right to initiate debates in Parliament and to crack the Government’s near-total control over parliamentary business.
My position is clear: the Wright recommendations must be implemented in full. My challenge to Gordon Brown and David Cameron is simple: do they back the Wright recommendations, yes or no? After this rotten parliament people are crying out for a change in the way Westminster is run. This Government has had thirteen years to fix our democracy, but instead it will leave office with Westminster’s reputation in tatters.
The time for cheap talk about political reform is over; people now want leaders to act.
So, the radical dispersal of power away from central government. A central state that is fully accountable, effective and independent. A stronger legislature.
That is the Liberal Democrat vision for better government... Put very simply, it’s government that knows when to let go.