UK Politics

Liam Fox report 'should have been confidential'

Former defence secretary Liam Fox
Image caption Liam Fox resigned following allegations about his relations with self-styled adviser Adam Werritty

Former cabinet secretary Lord Butler has told MPs that a report on Liam Fox "should have been confidential".

Current cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell conducted an inquiry into the dealings between the ex-defence secretary and his friend Adam Werritty.

The Public Administration Committee asked Lord Butler whether that inquiry had "strayed into the political arena".

He said "you could make an argument" that Sir Gus's advice to the prime minister should have been kept private.

Lord Butler also told the committee that the Civil Service Code required those working within the Ministry of Defence to have taken further action over Mr Fox's conduct.

But he criticised the "tendency for ministers to defend themselves by saying, 'This is OK because I cleared it with my permanent secretary'".

"I don't think politicians can or should defend themselves by hiding behind their civil servants," he said.

On the subject of Sir Gus's report on Mr Fox, Lord Butler said: "I think you could make an argument that his advice to the prime minister should have been confidential."

Reorganisation

Lord Butler also repeated his concerns about the government's decision to split the roles of the cabinet secretary and the head of the Civil Service.

Sir Gus currently holds both posts, but his successor as cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, will not become head of the Civil Service.

Lord Butler, who held the dual post from 1988 to 1998, told the committee he was "not persuaded" by the government's explanation that the workload from the two roles had grown so heavy that they needed to be separated.

"I do regret the splitting of the posts. Someone who is not the cabinet secretary will find it difficult to get access to the prime minister," he said.

"It is also not so good from the prime minister's point of view. I found that when there were things the prime minister wanted to have done, the leverage I felt I had as head of the Civil Service enabled me to get a great deal of cooperation from my colleagues on policy matters."

Another former cabinet secretary, Lord Armstrong, told the committee he was concerned by the prospect of a permanent secretary of a major government department also being the head of the Civil Service.

He said this would leave the permanent secretary without anyone to consult if faced with a difficult issue in their department, such as the allegations against Mr Fox.

Lord Butler agreed: "If it is the secretary of state of the person who's appointed the head of the Civil Service where the difficulty arises, then that person is going to be in a very great difficulty.

"You'll have loyalty to his or her own minister but also a duty to the prime minister. That's a nasty dilemma to be in."

Both men agreed that the cabinet secretary's access to the prime minister would make them more influential in the Civil Service than the new head.

"In this new arrangement, for a whole lot of practical reasons, it's going to be the cabinet secretary who is top dog," Lord Armstrong said.

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