'Reluctant' Mottram defends his profession

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Indy Politics

The senior civil servant whose personal statement in effect saved Stephen Byers from the sack revealed yesterday that he had been forced against his will to go public on the Sixsmith affair.

Sir Richard Mottram, the permanent secretary at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, told MPs it was "an extremely bad idea" for civil servants to make such statements, but admitted the Civil Service's relation to government was like that of "a rather stupid dog" to its master.

Sir Richard was told to make the unprecedented personal statement last month on the orders of Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, The Independent has learnt.

His official version of events was released after Mr Sixsmith, the department's director of communications, accused Mr Byers of wrongly claiming that he had resigned along with Jo Moore.

The statement cleared the Transport Secretary of lying about the affair and clarified that it was Sir Richard's own proposal that Mr Sixsmith and Ms Moore should both resign. But Sir Richard told the Commons Public Administration Committee yesterday that the statement was not his idea.

"There was a feeling which was communicated to me that the way in which Mr Sixsmith had chosen to represent his conversation with me and others was not an accurate account and was difficult for everyone concerned, including me," he said.

"It was put to me that I might set out clearly my understanding of what happened. I was very reluctant to do that and the reason I was reluctant was because, for constitutional reasons, I think it is very inappropriate for permanent secretaries to make statements. I think it an extremely bad idea.

"Had I not been so willing to chat with Mr Sixsmith to try and find a solution to his problems, then the Government might not find itself in this position."

Sir Richard stressed the statement had been drafted entirely by himself and "was not changed to fit somebody else's view of events".

He also denied claims, made in a dossier by Mr Sixsmith, that Mr Byers had given Ms Moore a promise that if she resigned, Mr Sixsmith would follow suit. However he agreed he had been "living dangerously" in giving the impression of such a promise to Mr Sixsmith. "I did not have a conversation with Mr Byers which implied there was such a linkage. Perhaps some of my conversations with him were meant to be jollying him along in what were difficult circumstances, when I did not actually expect that everything I might or might not have said to him would appear in a Sunday newspaper," Sir Richard told the committee.

Crucially, Sir Richard admitted that he had not complained about Ms Moore's improper interference with press officers because he did not want to upset Mr Byers. "What really matters in a department is to have a good relationship with their minister. I don't think it would necessarily have been conducive to that relationship to have picked a fight with one of the Secretary of State's special advisers," he said.

Sir Richard criticised Charles Clarke, the Labour party chairman and Minister without Portfolio, for his comments last month that some civil servants viewed politicians as a "venal sub-species". "If he said that, I think he has a complete misunderstanding of the way in which the civil servants think about ministers," the permanent secretary said.

He added that the Civil Service was normally "fantastically loyal" to ministers. "I would compare it to a rather stupid dog; it wants to do what its master wants and to be loved for doing it," he said.

Sir Richard's evidence came as the Commons Transport Select Committee issued a scathing report on Mr Byers' plan for the part-privatisation of the London Underground.