In a recent meeting of the Political and Contsitutional Reform Committee the subject of Permant Secretaries was raised with top Civil Servant Bob Kerslake.
Paul Flynn: In one episode, Sir Humphrey gave an explanation of the mysteries of secretaries in Government, explaining what a Secretary of State, an Under-Secretary of State and a Permanent Secretary of State did, until he got down to Mrs Brown and said, “She is the secretary, because she writes letters”. Now, the secretaries in Government are not secretaries in any way that the public would understand the role, and neither are they permanent, because since the last election two-and-a-half years ago 18 of the secretaries have changed; the Permanent Secretaries. How disruptive is this? Is it a problem, and do frequent changes of so-called Permanent Secretaries increase the instability in Government?
Sir Bob Kerslake: I agree with you about the title. I can remember recently going into an estate agent and him asking me what my job was. I said I was a Permanent Secretary, and they said, “Secretary? Now, that is a good job, and isn’t it great that they made it permanent for you?”
Paul Flynn: They thought your career had stuck in the mud a bit.
Sir Bob Kerslake: True. So you are right to say explaining this to the wider public is quite hard. Of course it helps to have stability in the Permanent Secretaries. I said earlier we have had more movement and more change than I ideally would have wanted. There are particular points where you do see change—typically, at elections. In terms of career planning, Leigh Lewis and David Normington, for example, took it past the date of the election, and then went. That is not unusual; indeed, very helpful. But by and large I would like to see more continuity, and I am hoping we will get this having been through a period of a lot of change.
Paul Flynn: What happens if there is a change of Permanent Secretary and Secretary of State that coincide? Does that not have a devastating effect on the Department?
Sir Bob Kerslake: Not necessarily, actually. As I said earlier, we tend to think of this from the top, but think of it as a Department, and actually there is a whole lot of stability that is potentially still there both from the private offices and others. It is not necessarily a problem. Indeed, many Permanent Secretaries who go speak very fondly of their first Minister, and it was often the case that they came in alongside a new Minister. While in theory it could be a big problem, I am not personally convinced that it is.
Paul Flynn: We have this view of Government that Ministers are here today and gone tomorrow and that the role of the civil service is to provide the continuity, the stability, to provide the memory of the Department, but if they are changing, that does not apply.
Sir Bob Kerslake: No, I agree that in an ideal world you would not want to see as much change as we have seen recently. I am quite clear about that, but I am also saying there is a lot of continuity and corporate memory within Departments that you can draw on. I came into the job not having worked as a civil servant at all, and I relied hugely on people inside the Department who had worked in the area that I am responsible for for quite a long time, knew the field and were immensely helpful and supportive to me in the job. The fact that there is discontinuity at the top does not mean the whole thing is a problem. You actually have a lot of stability and continuity within Departments that you can draw on.
Paul Flynn: On the question of diversity in the civil service, have the recent changes reduced the percentage of women as Permanent Secretaries? Can I raise another point with you on this? I saw a report that of the 20,000 applicants for the fast-track entry into the civil service last year—I think about 600 actually get through—none of them were black.
Sir Bob Kerslake: On the first point, about the reduction in women, the short answer is yes. A number of people have left either because of serious illness—in the case of Lesley Strathie—or for jobs and other reasons. We have seen a reduction in the number of women and clearly that is a matter of regret. I want to achieve a representative work force. The focus for me is not just on the Permanent Secretary level, though; it is on the whole of the senior civil service, because that creates the pipeline for Permanent Secretaries in the future. I am doing a lot of work there to see how we can strengthen the number of women and representation of women in that group. There has been a lot of progress. It has doubled over the last decade. Over a third now are women, but we should be on 50%, and that is where I would like to get to. I would like to over time return to the point that fleetingly Gus got to, which was 50:50 at Permanent Secretary level. Hopefully, that answers your first question.
The second question on the fast stream is a more complex one, and I did a lot of work on this. The specific issue was actually the number of black Africans that we recruited. The number of people from ethnic minorities, in fact, is quite high and representative of the population, but we have done less well on a particular group within that. That is the thing we have to focus on improving. We have a lot of work being done with outreach groups to improve that particular representation. I am happy to send you a note on that if it would help.
Paul Flynn: What I quoted to you was reported at a private seminar recently.
Sir Bob Kerslake: I am very aware of the issue, but we have to distinguish between the proportion who are from ethnic minority and the proportion who are from a particular ethnic minority where we did not do as well.
Paul Flynn: Okay; thank you.