Thursday, February 11, 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Denham Hits Back at Permanent Secretary

Click on any of the three images to enlarge

Earlier this afternoon I posted details of correspondence between the Permanent Secretary at the DCLG, Peter Housden, and his Secretary of State, John Denham. I have now been given Denham's reply, which accentuates the impression of a total breakdown between in relations between the two men over local government reorganisation in Devon, Suffolk and Norfolk.

It was a sign of things to come that despite pleas from various Conservative MPs, Denham refused to make an oral statement on this yesterday in the Commons. Instead, the details of the plans for the three counties were slipped out in a Written Answer from Local Government Minister Rosie Winterton.

We haven't seen the last of this.

UPDATE: A DCLG Spokesman has been in touch and commented...

A spokesman for Communities and Local Government said:

"There has been no breakdown in relations between the Permanent Secretary, Peter Housden and Secretary of State, John Denham. The Permanent Secretary works very closely with Ministers on decisions such as this. It was right that he, as department’s chief accounting officer, raised value for money matters as one of the criteria. Ultimately the decision is one for Ministers. They took the wider view that where there was clear local support and the potential to create lasting economic growth for the region."

So that's all right then. Nothing to see. Move along.


James Higham said...

Yes, when it descends to the mutual letter writing, it's a sign of things to come.

DespairingLiberal said...

Read any good political diary (I recommend Chris Mullin's recent offering) and you will see that Permi-Secs and their ilk frequently use the bogeyman threat of legal action against the dept as part of an effort to get their own way. Denham is just involved in one such typical rebuttal.

One of the really, really sad things about the British "system" is that it generally takes a couple of years for an incoming minister to develop the knowledge and balls to take on their civil servants - shortly after which they get reshuffled and the next "minister" comes under the dead hand of those really in charge in the department.

This might be good for some spurious notion of "stability" but it does nothing for decision making or speed of government. The struggles ministers go through to get the smallest changes approved are legendary. In many ways the UK government is hopelessly stuck. This is one of the amusing things that always comes up when comparing with the EU. As if Britain's governmental system is so marvellous!

Nigel said...

As a constitutional and political process geek (a Hennessy Wannabe, you might say), I can say this exchange is certainly highly unusual, but its leaking within 24 hours is utterly astonishing. The leak itself will lead to a crisis of confidence in the Department which will have significant repercussions across Whitehall.

Iain Dale said...

DL, that's about rhe best comment you have ever made on this site. See, you can do it when you want to!

DespairingLiberal said...

I know Iain, sorry, I can't help sometimes getting drawn into the silly feuding that takes place around here. Credit where it's due, this is a neat piece of journalism by you.

bunnco said...

John Denham's response would carry some weight if, indeed it were possible for all the 'Growth' to be contained within the Norwich city boundaries.

But it isn't.

All the thousands of houses, including Mr Brown's EcoTown at Rackheath will be developed outside Norwich in neighbouring Broadland and South Norfolk districts.

So the primary defence against his decision is proven to be unsound within 20 minutes.

You're right, we haven't heard the last of this! Sir Humphrey called this one right.

Unsworth said...

@ DespairingLiberal

Some are much better at it than others. Read Alan Clark and his comments about MoD, DTI, etc. I don't think it took him anything like two years to crack the whip. Many Ministers and ex-Ministers are far too ready to blame their Civil Servants for their own failures and incompetences. Most diaries are, after all, and with a few exceptions, exercises in self-exoneration.

And you ignore the important detail that many Ministers are only too glad to be moved on. Having buggered up their various departments and the nation at the same time these idiots are desperate to avoid personal repercussions. Education? Health? Defence? Home Office? Just a few minor examples.

Follow the career paths of any of the current Ministers and you'll see that actually they have been dealing with the Civil Service and Civil Servants for years. So a move from one Department to another should not prove too much of a learning curve - except in the details of the brief. Are these people slow learners?

But for real incompetence and corruption the EU takes the biscuit.

Peter said...

I want the Ministers - Tory or Labour - to be in charge, not the Permanent Secretary. We can vote out politicans. When things go wrong, we don't see resignations from PermSec's which is the way it should be.

Cynic said...

This is absolutely clear.The Perm Sec believes that the Minister is either:

1 acting unlawfully or

2 breaching HMT Accounting standards.

He has therefore asked for a clear written instructions. I agree with you Iain that this has a way to run.

In the first case, the Perm Sec will then have to take legal advice on the exact instructions given to him. If he believes it unlawful and cannot resolve it with the Minister he will probably go to the Cabinet Secretary to formally express his concerns. He could then refuse to carry out the instruction. If the Ministers were foolish enough to try to move him they might want to remember the whistleblowing act.

If its just that Ministers are wasting millions of pounds of public money then as Accounting Officer he may either refuse to follow the order or follow it but immediately report this to the Auditors and his Audit Committee.

It will then be clearly set out in the Statement of Internal control with the Accounts. This may lead to qualified accounts and a trip off to see the PAC for the then ex-Minister.Of course, anyone who wilfully misspends public money could be surcharged personally.

In the meantime, anyone with the money or legal aid and who is affected by the gerrymander could seek a Judicial Review and force these fools to disclose all the papers. that would be fun. Anyone know an indigent unemployed tramp in Devon who has a strong sense that his political rights are being undermined? Any Lib Dem will do!

Childprotector said...

It is helpful the Cynic (2.37) has pointed out that in addition to the right to seek an instruction in cases where a Minister's decision may result in legal action, officials can report decisions which they believe could be impugned as wasteful by the NAO.

It should not stop there. There have been too many cases where Ministers have required Departments to concoct Impact assessments in order to justify a policy. Officials should be given the power to report to NAO decisions do not appear to be justified by the evidence presented to Ministers or where clear advice has been given that the selected course of action is impracticable. That might make Ministers think twice before allowing party benefit or headlines to influence their actions.

DespairingLiberal said...

Unsworth, good points and it's been a while since I read the excellent Alan Clark Diaries, but I seem to recall he had frequent struggles with the senior civil servants and felt that Tom King was somewhat under their thumb and often expressed feelings of impotence about that? Something about "one really must be in charge of a department to have any chance of bringing about change" or words to that effect?

Clark I think is an interesting example in that despite his privileged position as being seen as one Thatcher's favourites, he was not able to get his policy views on the whole delivered and was reduced to sniping from the media sidelines; he also suffered from the jealousy of colleagues as he was much admired by the public. I liked him too and always, always looked forward to hearing/seeing him in the media. A sad loss to politics.

DespairingLiberal said...

Lots of LibDems in Norfolk, Cynic!

truthmonkey said...

Smells awfully like a Letter of Direction to me. There is a divide a mile wide between the minister and the permanent secretary in this matter.

The press office doth protest too much.

Cynic said...


Sorry I should have been more explicit.The Department's external auditors will be the NAO and the Perm Sec as AO for the Department should report it to the C&AG. Furthermore if I was Chair of the Audit Committee I would be writing to the Minister and our Audit Manager tonight to express my concern and an imminent breach of the rules and seeking an urgent intervention by NAO to minimise the losses. If the Perm Sec decided to refuse to follow the instructions I would also feel compelled to stand beside him/her on this and, if necessary, resign and make a hell of a fuss