Sunday, March 26, 2006

 

'Infinitely Extendable' Sir John to the Rescue


It has long been obvious that government machinery for policing the 'ministerial code' has been inadequate. It was John Major who first issued the code- hitherto kept secret- in 1992. This lays down the ways in which ministers are expected to behave, declare conflicts of interest and so forth. It was reissued in 2005 with its Code of Ethics separately delineated from its Procedural Guidance. Unfortunately there was nobody to act as a watchdog, perhaps because of the old and clearly out of date belief that ministers were 'gentlemen' who could and should be trusted to be honourable.

This also meant Prime Ministers were the final arbiters of when the code had been broken. When alleged breaches occurred it was the Secretary to the Cabinet who was usually trundled out to investigate. When Jonathan Aitken was accused of receiving favours from arms dealers Sir Robin Butler was despatched to investigate. It seems that all he did was to ask Aitken, man to man, 'Did you do it?' In response the old Etonian bravely answered 'No' to which Butler said: 'Well, that's alright then' and reported back that everything was tickety boo. A short time later Aitken was exposed as a liar and served time for perjury.

The most recent case involved Gus O'Donnell poking his fastidious mandarin nose into the Tessa Jowell case, once again to no significant effect. So now a specific watchdog has been appointed and one with whom, as it happens, I have a personal connection. Sir John Bourn(72) has been Comptroller and Auditor General(C and AG) since 1988 and before that was an official in the Ministry of Defence. [That's a rubbish picture of him by the way but the only one available.] In 1971 he was asked by MOD's personnel division to accept into his division a young Assistant Principal(the then trainee grade for the senior civil service) who was struggling to feel at home in the civil service. Yes, that's right, it was me.

As a country boy from the Welsh borders I had suffered ever since joining the civil service as its last ever A.P. to be taken on in December 1970(after that they were called Administration Trainees). It was partly being in constant awe of the government machine, partly a failure to empathise with fellow civil servants- they seemed so joyless and small minded- and partly because my temperment was not suited to commuting for three hours a day simply in order to work through a succession of files of mind numbing tedium for eight hours and more each day.

John Bourn was a possible antidote to this minor personnel problem and, if anyone could have solved it than it was this remarkable and charming man. He had studied at LSE, rather than Oxford like most of the Assistant Secretaries at that time. Hearing I was still trying to complete my doctorate he let slip he'd done his part-time as an A.P., using his daily Tube journeys to work out the philosophical problems relating to his chosen topic: the ideas of Hegel, notoriously one of the most difficult of the German thinkers. John was endlessly helpful and one of those 'infinitely extendable' mandarins who took on mountains of work, never seemed flustered and was always in control. I was not at all surprised he became as the C and AG, one of the most important government officials in British government, in charge of ensuring whether revenue has been spent as legislation and policy intended and with due efficiency. He also wrote a book on management and found time to teach each year for the Open University. Sadly, he is dying breed and the country will be the worse for it.

I was a lost, lost cause and soon escaped back to the groves of academe but since 1988, Sir John has been a hugely respected and fearless public servant, criticising governments of right and left and being listened to with great respect. It seems he will continue to hold his present job and perform the ministerial watchdog one part-time. This is a reform Blair was advised to introduce by the Committee on Standards in Public Life with which he promised to comply.... three years ago. Better late than never. I have no doubt that in his new part-time job, Sir John will apply the same forensic skills and honesty that have illuminated his conduct of his day job for nearly two decades. It would seem that, as the reputation of the Blair government rapidly disappears down the toilet, his services are badly needed.

Comments:
Interesting, though are you not exaggerating the extent to which the current allegations of "sleaze" have jeopardised the Blair administration? After all, the Tories have been marred as well; it seems to me that politics in general has suffered, rather than a single party in particular.

Was the phrase "rapidly disappears down the toilet" a conscious or subconscious reference to certain events last Friday?
 
Back in the good old days of Tory sleaze, my memory suggests, it was mainly backbench MPs or junior-ish ministers, wasn't it? The current New Labour, New Sleaze seems to originate in the dark corridors of No10. I'm not suggesting that Tony is involved, but it does seem that his so-called 'circle' is - or am I being hopelessly naive?

Shouldn't anon above have said 'audibly disappears down the toilet'?
 
I'd say more cynical than naive. I hesitate to call Tony, or his government, "sleazy": it seems to me he and they are merely acting out of the Labour Party's - and the country's - interest, within a flawed system of party funding. One could, however, deride those first-term reforms that just didn't go far enough - and I do.
 
Comments above might confuse the uninitiated so here's the explanation: I chaired a conference for students at Salford University lest Friday. Having set the first speaker off I slipped out for a quick pee. On emerging from the gents Mark Melling, of Turton High School had come running out to inform me that my radio mike was on all the time with the result that that the speaker had to combat the sounds amplified around the lecture theatre- hissing fawcets and all.
 
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You carried it off really well, as did the speaker at the time. As you said, it could have been a lot worse!
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