Sir George cross-examines Prime Minister
16 Jul 2002
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament
As a member of the Liaison Committee, Sir George joined in the cross-examination of the Prime Minister when he appeared before them.

The relevant extracts appear below.

Sir George Young
Prime Minister, what a lot of us are interested in, is what are the constraints on a Prime Minister today? Is it the Cabinet; is it Parliament; is it the Civil Service; is it individual Government departments? What I am interested in is the inner-wiring of your Government - how decisions are made. Traditionally a government department would work up a policy because that is where the expertise was, that is where the ministers were, and if it involved sensitive issues or other government departments it would be brokered through sub-committees, possibly ending with Cabinet. This process seems to be short-circuited under your administration. Can I just quote what one of your former Cabinet Ministers said: "More and more decisions were being taken by Number 10 without consultation with the relevant Minister or Secretary of State. He makes decisions with a small coterie of people, advisers, just like the President of the United States. He doesn't go back to Cabinet, he isn't inclusive ...". Is there any substance in what one of your former colleagues said about this style of Government?
(Mr Blair) I truly believe not, no. I think that is unfair and wrong. I think we have roughly doubled the number of Cabinet sub-committees that we inherited in 1997. I think there are now over 40 Cabinet sub-committees. I have regular bilateral stock-takes with Ministers. The Departments, of course, are charged with policy, but the reality is for any modern Prime Minister you also want to know what is happening in your own Government, to be trying to drive forward the agenda of change on which you were elected. It is true that at Cabinet, yes, I would be surprised if the first time I knew of a problem is that it suddenly surfaced around the Cabinet table. But I regard that as good management. That is not to say when critical issues come up that the Cabinet does not sit and discuss them; but if there were particularly very contentious issues and the first I ever heard of it was at Cabinet then I would think some process of communication between Departments and the centre had broken down. I do not actually accept that we have changed fundamentally principles at all; but I do probably place a lot more emphasis on bilateral stock-takes - although there are, as I say, the Cabinet sub-committees and of course I chair groups of ministers myself.
(Sir George Young)If Mo Mowlem has got it wrong, what about Sir Richard Packer, a former Permanent Secretary? "They have shaken up Departments and there's a lot more power at the centre. There are groups at the centre with the Prime Minister's ear ... if something goes wrong departmental, responsibility is clear; but if something goes right, they read in the newspaper it is all the Prime Minister's idea"?
(Mr Blair) I do not accept that either! I certainly had not noticed that all the things that went wrong were never laid at my door from the media coverage I have seen, with the greatest respect. People will always say these things. If you go back in politics I think Prime Ministers fit into two categories: those that are supposed to have a strong centre are accused of being dictatorial; and those that do not are accused of being weak. You pays your money and you takes your choice really. I think you could find similar comments like that made from former people who have worked for most Prime Minsters in the past. One thing I do say though very strongly is that I make no apology for having a strong centre. I think you need a strong centre, particularly in circumstances where, one, the focus of this Government is on delivering better public services. In other words, the public sector for this Government is not simply a necessary evil we have to negotiate with, it is at the core of what the Government is about. Therefore, delivering public service reform in a coherent way it is, in part, absolutely vital for the centre to play a role. The second thing is, in relation to foreign policy and security issues, I think again that the simple fact of the matter is that in today's world there is a lot more that needs to be done at prime ministerial level. You need, for those two reasons, a stronger centre. Before I came to the Committee, I was looking through some of the facts and figures in relation to this and we worked out that my Number 10 office has roughly the same or perhaps even fewer people working for it than the Irish Taoiseach's. To put this in context, there are far fewer than either the French Prime Minister, never mind the Elysee and the Prime Minister combined, or the German Chancellor.

Sir George Young
Have you not strengthened Number 10 but weakened your Government and weakened Parliament? If you are going to have all this power focussed in the centre, and in many cases on one person, do you also need to have the checks? Is it not the case that the checks are not working any more, in that Cabinet is not a check; the Civil Service around you is increasingly special advisers and Parliament has been weakened? If you are going to move the centre of gravity into Number 10, do you not also need to make sure you have the checks, so that in a parliamentary democracy we can hold to account the place where the power has now moved to?
(Mr Blair) I am afraid I do not accept the premise of that. I do not accept that Cabinet government is weakened. I think the fact that, as I say, you have roughly double the number of Cabinet sub-committees is an indication that Cabinet government is strong. I chair regular ministerial meetings; for example there is a ministerial group on public services, and one on issues to do with Europe that I chair. For example, in relation to welfare reform in the first Parliament I chaired all of the meetings in relation to that programme - the Health Service plan likewise. It is slightly different with street crime, which is in the COBRA setting but actually it covers the range of Government departments. I do not accept that the checks and balances are not there. The checks and balances with the Civil Service are still very much there. On the foreign policy side, for example, the two senior people advising me are career civil servants who have spent all their life in the Civil Service, and absolutely excellent they are too. With the greatest respect, I think we have to distinguish very carefully between two quite separate things: a stronger centre, which I think is necessary and right particularly given the focus that this Government has; and weakening Cabinet government. I do not know whether we have said this to people but we have regular bilateral stock- takes - every week I have several bilateral stock- takes with the main ministers - and we go through then all the programme they are trying to deliver, and how it can be helped; what are the issues that are of concern to them. I think that the process of Cabinet government is alive and well, I have to say. I do not think it is inconsistent with a stronger centre.
(Sir George Young)One of your colleagues said that if you want to seek an entry into politics you no longer need to do it via Cabinet, but via a member of the UK presidential staff; that is Graham Allen. If he is right, is it really the case that the Cabinet is this enormous constraint? Has not the decision-making process moved over to some extent to special advisers whom we cannot get at, because you will not let Parliament cross-examine them?
(Mr Blair) No. We just had yesterday the Comprehensive Spending Review. I do not know how many meetings Gordon and I have had about this in the last few months, a score or more, never mind informal contacts by telephone and so on. The idea that is all decided by special advisers - it is the most important thing we have done as a Government - it is absurd. Special advisers have a role to play, and I think their role is sometimes a bit misunderstood. Indeed, I think some of the reports from Tony Wright's committee are interesting in this regard and welcome. I think it is important we have some understanding of what they do. The idea that they determine the policy of the Government, I really believe is something that would not be recognised by any Cabinet Minister, even if you were talking to them off the record in private.

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