Whitehall bows to pressure for change

Andrew Grice@IndyPolitics
Tuesday 21 September 1999 23:02

SENIOR CIVIL servants have bowed to Tony Blair's pressure by agreeing to draw up sweeping plans to modernise the way Whitehall operates.

The Prime Minister has become frustrated that Labour's attempts to drive through policies have been thwarted by outdated civil-service practice.

Mr Blair believes that Whitehall is much too slow at turning policy ideas into action. He is worried that his attempts to pursue cross-departmental initiatives are hampered by "turf wars" between rival fiefdoms.

The Prime Minister said this summer that he bore "scars on my back" after two years of trying to change public services. It was seen as an attack on public-sector workers, but Mr Blair had the Whitehall machine in his sights.

Amid speculation that Mr Blair's patience is fast running out, Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, hascalled a two-day summit of Whitehall's top brass at Sunningdale next week. Sir Richard gave the Cabinet a 50- minute briefing at its meeting at Chequers last week and ministers held a 45-minute discussion on possible changes. Four working groups have been set up and an action plan will be submitted to Downing Street next month.

Sir Richard said that the review would not jeopardise core civil-service values, but he admitted staff needed stronger leadership. "We know what we are not, but we need to define our positive vision for the future," he told ministers.

Reforms include ensuring that officials switch between public and private sectors more often in their careers; recruitment of more women and ethnic minorities; and specific measures to improve the performance of every department.

Mr Blair told the Cabinet that the programme of change was a big job for the Civil Service. He paid tribute to Sir Richard's attempts to reform it.

A Downing Street source said last night: "The Civil Service is admired the world over but it is not immune from change. We need to build on its strengths, sharpen the focus on delivery and ensure that it continues to modernise."

Some officials, however, doubt that the mandarins will come up with radical plans. "Are they going to make big changes to the system that put them where they are?" one asked.

William Hague condemned the "arrogance" of Tony Blair's government last night as he mounted a strong attack on the Prime Minister.

The Tory leader sought to exploit signs that voters are becoming disenchanted with Labour. Mr Hague said at a Tory dinner in London: "This is a tax- raising, intervening, interfering, bossy, high-spending, over-regulating, trade union-funded, crony-run, hypocritical, amoral, arrogant Labour government."

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