Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Servant of the Civil Service

I've been enjoying A View from the Foothills, the first set of political diaries of Chris Mullin, the slightly bookish and befuddled former MP for Sunderland South and extremely reluctant junior minister in the Blair Government. He does a nice line in observation of his colleagues and honest (and honourable) indiscretion and also reveals how depressingly accurate was the view painted of the Civil Service in Yes Minister.

Two entries from 2000 that I have just read reveal this. In one, he was asked to approve a letter from his department (Transport and Environment) to the Foreign Office but is met with a brick wall when he suggests adding a sentence.

"Oh that's not for you," blurted my Private Secretary. "So why are you asking for my approval if I'm not allowed to change anything?" Mullin replies.

The Private Secretary first tells the minister that he will pass the concern on - "I don't want my concern passed on. I want to amend the letter," Mullin says - then, after the minister is very reluctantly allowed to make his change, Mullin reports that he got a call a few hours later in the House of Commons and was told by the Private Secretary that he had discovered the Foreign Secretary had rejected that idea before so he had decided to remove the line after all.

"I hope you don't mind," the civil servant says, adding to stop Mullin's retort that he had been unable to get hold of the Minister, who had been in Parliament all afternoon.

The other anecdote reveals the stupid - and costly - consultation process of which the Civil Service is so proud. Having fought a fruitless battle earlier in the year against night flights over Heathrow, Mullin decides to reject the Civil Service suggestion that they pay to commission more research into the effect of aircraft noise on sleep.

"What's the point?" he asks. "Whatever the conclusions, you are still going to tell me that nothing can be done about night flights." He speculates that the disgruntled civil servants will just wait until he is moved on before putting it under the nose of a new minister.

By rejecting the consultation, Mullin saved £1.5 million of taxpayers' money. I wonder how much more was wasted - and still is wasted - by Government on research that proves nothing or, if it proves something undesirable, is never acted on?

1 comment:

Different Shades said...

Morning, Patrick, good to see that things are livening up out there.

I've been meaning to comment on this for the past week, as I too have richly enjoyed both volumes of Mullin's diaries over the past six months.

A politician of genuine humanity with a refreshing (but probably career-limiting) lack of conceit and a gift for beautifully observed character sketches. The first is by far the best - more substantial and wide-ranging, given his varied ministerial experiences - but the second contains some interesting reflections on the decine of the Labour government and GB's character. In years to come they'll be seen as the last word in contemporary reportage/analysis of British politics between 1997 and 2010.