SIR Robin Butler, head of the Civil Service, yesterday acknowledged that the Government's controversial market testing programme was 'very disturbing and very worrying for staff'.
He said that 'management difficulty' was responsible for the failure to meet targets for the initiative, which reviews civil service operations to see if they are being conducted efficiently and is often the first step towards contracting out or privatisation. Only 50 per cent of the goal of testing pounds 1.5bn worth of services had been met. However, Sir Robin said the targets were not his responsibility but that of Sir Peter Levene, the Prime Minister's efficiency adviser. They were, he said, 'very ambitious'.
Asked how he would get on with a future Labour Civil Service minister who took a dim view of market testing, he replied: 'Very well.'
This is believed to be the first time that Sir Robin has made any criticism, even implied, of the Government's handling of the programme, which has already been the cause of a one-day civil servants' strike and is being widely blamed for poor morale in Whitehall.
Sir Robin also spoke for the first time about his role in the arms-to- Iraq affair. He has yet to give evidence to the Scott inquiry but said he was 'involved at the permanent secretary level where people thought things had gone, or were going, wrong'. He had been consulted about 'the protection of intelligence' - to what extent information should be made available to Customs officers. Because it was such a sensitive matter he had been drafted in. He did not specify what his advice had been.
Earlier, Sir Robin defended the Government's move to open up senior Whitehall posts to outsiders. Responding to criticism that it did not go far enough by removing the fast stream entry system, traditionally the preserve of Oxbridge graduates, he claimed the fast stream only applied for the first three to five years. 'There has been more open competition,' he said.
Paddy Ashdown last night accused the Government of creating 'black holes of responsibility' through 'ill-thought-through, badly-prepared, dogma-driven' public service reforms. Addressing local authority chief executives, the Liberal Democrat leader proposed a code of ethics for the Civil Service; a freedom of information Act and greater parliamentary accountability from ministers and chief executives of agencies.
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