Obituary: Lord Bancroft

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The Independent Online
Ian Bancroft cared passionately about the integrity and public standing of the British civil service, of which he was head for a truncated period, between 1978 and 1981. Bancroft and Margaret Thatcher were chalk and cheese. He went to the stake on the principle of the duty of civil servants to give unpalatable advice to ministers.

In almost the first breath of his maiden speech to the House of Lords on 26 May 1982, he made this barb:

It is a great privilege to follow the former Lord Chancellor; and although flattery never does anyone any good I do not intend to flatter anyone but to tell the truth - and the truth occasionally does one some good.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale describes Bancroft as one of the few people who, when their name went up on the television screen of speakers in the House of Lords, could cause an influx of the peers to hear what he was saying. "He was very eloquent both in speech and on paper," says Allen. For example, Bancroft went on in his maiden speech:

I am sure I will commit every solecism and infelicity known to your Lordships, because, after all, I have spent my time, on the whole, drafting speeches for others to read rather than making them myself.

Bancroft believed that, so long as we have our parliamentary democracy, the essential role of the Civil Service should be unchanging: namely, to act both as a ballast and, if need be, an engine in a constitution which includes a volatile and increasingly powerful executive, and a volatile and, until very recently, increasingly regimented legislature; a ballast and engine of permanent officers, duly subordinate to ministers yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist and to some extent influence those who are from time to time set above them.

He believed in the timeless verities of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. Those verities for Bancroft extended from the Permanent Secretary advising the minister to the youngest clerk in a local office caring for clients beyond the call of duty. In order to perform its role effectively, the service had to be self-confident. Recently something had gone far wrong when too many civil servants had become furtive or apologetic about their occupation. If some of our fellow citizens seemed to have lost confidence in the Civil Service, Bancroft thought that it was any rate partly as a result of the Civil Service's loss of confidence in itself.

He simply could not fathom the refusal of the Government last year to commission an independent attitude survey of its own employees. He was contemptuous of the need to rely on anecdotal evidence. Bancroft believed that the Civil Service was handicapped by being mucked around too much, too rapidly and too incestuously.

He identified a gap between the words and actions of ministers - the almost total break-up of a unified service into hundreds of semi-autonomous agencies, each under its own chief executive. "It makes for a cat's cradle of lines of accountability, rather like the work of a clever idiot trying to map Tom Tiddler's ground."

Bancroft argued that it was the natural condition of any public service to be corrupt:

If that is much less true in Britain than in other countries, it is because for a long time now, but by no means time out of mind, our civil service has maintained high standards of probity. That has not come about by accident. High standards have persisted because they became deeply ingrained in the ethos of the service. That ethos was rapidly absorbed by new arrivals, whose very method of recruitment to the service - by open competition - set the tone. They soon learnt from their elders what was expected of them.

Until Bancroft left Whitehall he used to tell his friends that he continued to ask himself the question. "What would Bridges, Brook, or Serpell [Lord Bridges, Lord Normanbrook and Sir David Serpell] have done in like circumstances?" He recalled that the ethos was further safeguarded by the tradition that the service offered a lifetime's career.

The last great issue of Bancroft's life was to mobilise opinion against farming out the key issue of recruitment to the Civil Service. Memorably, along with Lord Allen, in March this year he mobilised 124 peers to defeat 64 government loyalists on the issue of recruitment to the Civil Service. In the lobby with him were warlords such as Lord Ackner and Lord Simon of Glaisdale beside former Conservative ministers such as Lord Orr-Ewing and Lord Rippon of Hexham.

Bancroft was concerned about any idea of having to renew contracts. The first pillar of integrity was a career service whose members could persist in giving frank if unwelcome advice to ministers without the prospect of their "contracts" being ended or not renewed. The second was a unified service, bound together by a common ethos, where the best talent could be promoted on merit, without regard to departmental boundaries. The third pillar of the Civil Service was recruitment through open competition by an independent body protected against interference from any source whatever. He saw the first two pillars as having been chipped away in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The final straw was to sell off the recruitment and assessment services.

"We are discussing," he snapped in the Lords debate on 8 March, "a matter of high policy, not a mechanical weeding business."

Ian Bancroft was the son of a teacher and HM Inspector of Schools and educated at Sir William Turner's Grammar School, Coatham, near Redcar in Cleveland. He won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, gaining an honours degree in English and coming under the influence of the famous Master of Balliol Sandy Lindsay. In 1942 he left Oxford to join the Rifle Brigade and served as a captain from Normandy to the Rhine. A colleague who thought that he was altogether too serious a civil servant qualified his judgement by recalling that Bancroft, an admirer of Louis Armstrong, had painted on his bren-gun carrier "St James's Infirmary Blues".

On demobilisation Bancroft passed the civil service exam, entered the Treasury and was promoted to the post of Private Secretary to the Second Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Henry Wilson Smith, who had responsibility in the Treasury for the international currency problems being faced by Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell.

He served in the private office of Rab Butler, who described him as "the best Private Secretary I ever had". Seconded to the Cabinet Office for a couple of years, Bancroft went back to the Treasury in the key position of Principal Private Secretary to Reginald Maudling. This was the period when the Chancellor went for expansion, as he put it in his 1978 Memoirs,

quite deliberately, with our eyes open, recognising the dangers. The prize to be obtained, the prospect of expansion without inflation, the end of stop-go and a breakout from the constrictions of the past, was a glittering one. My policy has been described as a "dash for freedom". I think that is ascribing to me, rather unusually, an excess of energy and enthusiasm. In fact, the whole policy was

deliberate, calculated and coherent.

No one could guarantee success, but the chances were high and the alternatives were drab and depressing.

The first time I met Ian Bancroft was when I went with a young Scottish colleague to see Reggie Maudling on the question of whether aid could be given to developing countries in the form of surplus trucks from the BMC factory at Bathgate in my constituency. After we had seen the Chancellor, who was sympathetic but critical, Bancroft took the trouble - he was under no obligation whatsoever to do so - to explain to two very green MPs the thinking behind what Maudling had said. He was the first senior civil servant that I had ever met and I formed the strong impression that he cared deeply and would go to endless trouble to explain the convictions behind advice that his colleagues had given. He was a deeply caring man.

On the election of the Labour government James Callaghan was only too happy to inherit such a loyal Private Secretary who Maudling recommended to him as "a hell of a nice chap - clear vision, great tact". Callaghan describes him as "my strong right arm for three years". Indeed, many years later, on 1 February 1995, the then ennobled Lord Bancroft was to say in an aside to the peers, "On a personal note I relished all the many ministers I served except one." That one was, of course, Mrs Thatcher.

In 1966 Bancroft left the Private Office just before the terrible statement of 20 July when the Labour government public expenditure plans were blown off course. I have heard it argued that had Bancroft been in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Private Office the results of the economic storm would not have been so catastrophic as they turned out to be.

Bancroft progressed from being an Under-Secretary, 1966-68, to the newly established Civil Service Department in the last two years of the Labour government. Under Edward Heath he was Director General of Organisation and Establishments in the Department of the Environment, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Customs and Excise and then Second Permanent Secretary in the Civil Service Department. Under the Labour government he was Permanent Secretary, in succession to his close friend Sir David Serpell, during a period when relations between the Labour government and local government, not least Labour local authorities, were pretty fraught.

The 1974-76 Committee on Local Government Finance, under Sir Frank Layfield, had recommended far-reaching changes in the direction of greater financial independence. But local authorities, particularly the Labour fiefdoms in the cities, were overspending their agreed public expenditure allocations and Bancroft had to argue the case for greater and not lesser control by central government of local government spending. However, unusually for Permanent Secretaries, he established an excellent working relationship with the building industry.

On the retirement of Sir Douglas Allen, now Lord Croham, as Head of the Home Civil Service in October 1977, Bancroft was preferred to Sir Frank Cooper as his successor designate.

However, the incoming Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was determined to improve what she saw as the "efficiency" of the Civil Service. Actually, Bancroft was not automatically opposed to a reduction in the size of the Civil Service and was loyal to the point of playing his full part in trying to achieve the incoming government's targets. However, a published commitment to achieve a reduction of 20 per cent over five years, in the absence of any thought-out, clear and detailed proposals as to how this was to be done, was catastrophic for civil-service morale. He was sore at the appointment of a new efficiency unit to be headed by Sir Derek Rayner, an "outsider" from Marks & Spencer and not under the umbrella of the Civil Service Department.

Thatcher's decision in 1981 to get rid of the Civil Service Department altogether and to divide its functions between a new Manpower and Personnel Office within the Cabinet Office, and the Treasury, and to designate the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of the Cabinet as joint heads of the Home Civil Service, in fact determined the end of Bancroft's career as a civil servant.

Tam Dalyell

Ian Powell Bancroft, civil servant: born Barrow-in-Furness 23 December 1922; Private Secretary to the Second Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Henry Wilson Smith) 1948-50, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (R.A. Butler) 1953- 55, the Lord Privy Seal (R.A. Butler) 1955-57; Principal Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Reginald Maudling, James Callaghan) 1964-66; Under-Secretary, HM Treasury 1966-68, Civil Service Department 1968-70; Deputy Secretary, Director General of Organisation and Establishments, Department of the Environment 1970-72; CB 1971, KCB 1975, GCB 1979; a Commissioner of Customs and Excise 1972-73; Second Permanent Secretary, Civil Service Department 1973-75; Permanent Secretary, Department of the Environment 1975-77; Head of the Home Civil Service and Permanent Secretary to the Civil Service Department 1978-81; created 1982 Baron Bancroft; married 1950 Jean Swaine (two sons, one daughter); died London 19 November 1996.

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