The Sketch: Civil service chief and a room of 'verbal ectoplasm'

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The Independent Online

Here's a suggestion for select committee chairmen. Stop asking witnesses: "Would you like to say anything by way of introduction?"

No good ever comes of it. The piffle it produces doesn't even have the substance of drivel. Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, spoke at such length we were a quarter of an hour into the session before he had a chance to answer a question. At enormous length he refused. We heard first about the "Capability Review" of the Home Office, the need to make the Cabinet Office smaller and "more strategic" and the appointment of a "Permanent Secretary Champion" (puke, frankly). He said "finally" three times, introducing his last three points. Later on, responding to the question of whether honours had ever been sold he said: "My perception of the system is there was a perception. If I commented, I would be prejudicing cases that weren't even brought." Mandarins produce pulp. It's not exactly news, I suppose. But they used to be better at it.

"How many officials lost their job over the foreign prisoners debacle?" Tony Wright asked him three times. He piffled away without attempting an answer.

Paul Flynn characterised the civil service effluent as "verbal ectoplasm" and suggested the answer he was groping for was "none". More ectoplasm. I could hardly see across the room.

Thus, a second recommendation for committee chairs: more use of the phrase, "I'm so sorry, may I interrupt you for a moment?" The licence that witnesses such as Gus take is unbearable. The garbage that comes out is Prescott with grammar.

"Having reformed the honours system we now have a great row about it," Tony Wright, the committee chairman, suggested. "I'm not sure what you mean by a row about honours," Gus said. If that's the level the game is being played at why doesn't he just put his hands over his ears and sing, "La la la la la!"

"The Civil Service is an organisation that wants to learn from its mistakes," he said, most unforgivably. Kelvin Hopkins had pointed out that the private sector (from gambling consortiums to health entrepreneurs to transport consultants) turn these civil servants upside down and do things to them you wouldn't see in Russian videos. The reason why private finance initiatives and big IT schemes are so desirable to rapacious capitalists is that people like Gus are in charge of the contracts. I don't think he has any idea of the scale of his incompetence. It is... continental.

Last word for Paul Flynn. He put it to Gus (who resented it) that the civil service ethic was: "Yes, minister, no minister, lick your boots, minister. And those civil servants who challenge their ministers find their careers wither." I can't condone rudeness, of course, but we must try to make an exception for Mr Flynn.