Butler attacks government
James Sturcke and agencies
Thursday December 9, 2004
The former cabinet secretary Lord Butler launched a scathing attack on the government today, accusing it of too much central control, too much emphasis on selling policy and too little reasoned deliberation.
He also claimed that politicians were delegating decisions to unaccountable quangos because they did not want to take responsibility for them.
Lord Butler, who was cabinet secretary to three prime ministers, said it was a "grave flaw" that parliament did not have sufficient control over the executive, which was "much too free" to bring in bad bills, a huge amount of regulation and "to do whatever it likes".
Interviewed in the Spectator magazine, Lord Butler, who produced the recent report on pre-Iraq war intelligence, described in some quarters as a whitewash, was critical of the proliferation of political appointees in Whitehall.
He said: "It isn't wise to listen only to special advisers, and not to listen to fuddy-duddy civil servants who may produce boringly inconvenient arguments. Good government, in my view, means bringing to bear all the knowledge and all the arguments you can from inside and outside, debating and arguing them as frankly as you can, and to try to reach a conclusion.
"It is clear that politically appointed people carry great weight in the government and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if it's done to the exclusion of advice from civil servants, you tend to get into error, you make mistakes."
Lord Butler added: "I would be critical of the present government in that there is too much emphasis on selling, there is too much central control and there is too little of what I would describe as reasoned deliberation which brings in all the arguments."
He said if he was Mr Blair he would restore open debate in government at all levels up to the cabinet. "The cabinet, now - and I don't think there is any secret about this - doesn't make decisions," he said.
He added: "I think what tends to happen now is that the government reaches conclusions in rather small groups of people, who are not necessarily representative of all the groups of interests in government and there is insufficient opportunity for other people to debate, dissent and modify."
When asked whether he thought the country was well-governed on the whole, he replied: "I think we are a country where we suffer very badly from parliament not having sufficient control over the executive, and that is a very grave flaw.
"We should be breaking away from the party whip. The executive is much too free to bring in a huge number of extremely bad bills, a huge amount of regulation and to do whatever it likes - and whatever it likes is what will get the best headlines tomorrow. All that is part of what is bad government in this country."
Lord Butler said that "all decisions are delegated by politicians - because they don't want to take responsibility for them - to quangos, and quangos are not accountable to anybody.
"You know, all those commissioners who give out the lottery money; the Bank of England are now responsible for interest rates. Now what can you really hold a politician responsible for in domestic policy?"
Lord Butler continued: "I do think Britain is worse governed by the fact the executive has got so free of any inhibitions that are imposed either by parliament or the public."
He said: "It is extraordinary and shameful that the House of Lords, which I am proud to be a member of, but which is an unelected body, puts the inhibition on the will of the government [on Labour's law and order agenda] and it is a shameful thing that the House of Commons doesn't."
During the interview with the Spectator editor, Boris Johnson, Lord Butler talked about the weapons of mass destruction dossier used by the government in September 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Addressing the question of whether the government should have published warnings about the limitations of WMD evidence used to justify war, he said: "The purpose of the dossier was to persuade the British people why the government thought Iraq was a very serious threat ... Would it [adding a warning about the limitations of the evidence] have undermined it? I think it would have; I think it would have weakened it."
The prime minister's official spokesman said: "In terms of the prime minister's style of government, what the prime minister and the government should be judged by is the results it has achieved across a wide range of subjects."