The Sketch: Sir Richard dodges the mud pies and gives us third-class banalities

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The Independent Online

There it was, the back of the head of the head of the civil service. It's all you could see from the last row of seats in the committee room. The mysterious presence of Sir Richard Wilson. You want my assessment of him? In my experience, he's entirely covered in hair.

He was the most eminent in a line of witnesses called before Parliament to establish what had happened between Stephen Byers, Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith. After his evidence, we all knew very much less than when he'd started.

Sir Sidney Chapman made the most characteristic remark of the occasion: "I must just apologise. I was detained at an unavoidable lunch. Er, I only joined this committee last week." That was the end of Sir Sidney's contribution. It wasn't the worst offering of the day.

The committee is useless. Its members have no forensic ability, no satirical skills and no instinct for the jugular. The chairman never attempts the Maginot Line. One grand-looking Tory asks his questions while he is actually asleep. Others read out patsies then let a square foot of prose be chuntered into the record. One threw a mud pie and ran away. None has a strategy for extracting the truth from witnesses. No one asks terse questions that would cause pain to answer.

Sir Richard felt sufficiently untroubled by members to release a number of thundering third-class banalities. "I think it's quite important we have avenues of redress which people believe in," he said once. And: "Any organisation going through change needs to support its staff." And how about: "You've got to manage staff and lead them"? Brian White's mud pie may at least have had some therapeutic effect: "Freedom of Information is dead in the water. The modernisation programme has stalled. There's a civil service Bill that will entrench the status quo.

It's game set and match to the mandarins and reform is off the agenda for a generation." This may very well be true, but it's no way to get anything usable out of the head of a civil service. Mr White was told everything was the opposite of what he'd claimed and more modernisation was taking place in the British civil service than anywhere in the world, while at the same it remained true to its traditions. Not only was the service changing, in other words, it was remaining the same.

He was asked why 80 special advisers were concentrated in a few departments, giving them a significance beyond their numbers. Sir Richard replied that special advisers' powers derived specifically from the minister who'd hired them. "If that's the point you're making, I agree with you." Of course, it wasn't the point Annette Brooks was making at all, but she didn't like to disagree.

His way of changing the subject is equally crude: asked about – it doesn't matter what – he said: "Let's stand back and look at something really interesting. The Fulton Report of 1968." The chairman didn't say: "No, let's not. Let's address the question that's been put to you, you slippery old goat!" No, the committee's too affable, too clubabble, too thoroughly institutionalised to be any use.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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