Whitehall ruined by Tory years

Great and good say Government went too far
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Some of Whitehall's senior former mandarins have launched a rare public attack on the way the Conservatives have broken up and undermined the Civil Service.

In evidence to a House of Lords committee they say the Government has gone too far in hiving off some of Whitehall's core - with the Prisons Department and the Child Support Agency cited as examples - and that Labour will have its work cut out to restore morale.

But in a Fabian Society pamphlet published today, Peter Hennessy, of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, says: "A new government would be met with a fund of goodwill. After government by one party for 18 years, there would be a sense of excitement and anticipation. The Civil Service would relish a change and the opportunity to prove its professional ability."

The pamphlet, Ready, Steady, Go! New Labour and Whitehall, warns, however, that the Tory axe has cut so deep that "the public expenditure side of the Treasury is seriously under-staffed ... Several civil servants commented that Treasury staff had been so slashed that there were no longer sufficient numbers to exercise the new kinds of co-operative controls on spending that would make decisions more coherent, and save money."

The former mandarins register concern about the impact of changes on the delivery of overall policy. Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, former secretary of the Cabinet and head of the home civil service when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, told the Lords Public Service Committee that it "might have been better not to move" the Prison Service into an executive agency.

"It seems to me that in that service some of the operational issues or some of the day-to-day issues that arise are highly political and raise highly political issues such that the Home Secretary and some of his ministerial colleagues simply cannot detach themselves from in terms of answerability".

Asked whether there was an irreducible minimum beyond which Whitehall should not be stripped down, Sir Peter Carey, former permanent secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, has told peers: "There is an irreducible minimum [arguably already passed] of functions which not only should be retained within the public service, but which must be left in the hands of those whose expertise it is."

In a disclosure of the extent to which ministers and senior civil servants were willing to push their thinking about privatisation and hive-off, Sir Michael Partridge, former permanent secretary at the Department of Social Security, told the peers that privatisation of the legal system - the courts - was considered at one point in the 1980s. Arguing that things which went to the core of the department should not be privatised, he added: "I do not think you can put your computer strategy into the hands of an outsider. I do not think you can put out your law, your legal system. Ministers have ruled that out for privatisation. We did look at it, but they thought this was not on."

Sir William Reid, the former ombudsman, said: "The more you balkanise the service and create more agencies, the greater the risk may be that you will import people who may not behave as they might have behaved, with the same degree of propriety and fairness to those whom they serve, as if they had been imbued with that [public- service] ethos."

The evidence to the Lords committee shows the problem is not confined to the higher reaches of Whitehall.

Baroness Hollis, an opposition social security spokeswoman, said that while Labour accepted the role of agencies, the Government demanded spending cuts rather than best value for the public.

"How can someone on benefit travel 20 miles across Norfolk to the Norwich office because his local office at Thetford or Cromer has been closed? Bus services are poor yet costly, and he cannot afford a car."