What I’m up to

I haven’t written an update for some time, a result of pressing ahead with my career. I work as a reporter for Civil Service World, the newspaper of the senior civil service, which I started after working throughout the general election as a duty editor at PoliticsHome.

This is what I’ve been up to:

Interviews

As part of my work I frequently interview ministers, senior civil servants and public servants working for executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies.

Recently, I interviewed Lord Andrew Turnbull, the former cabinet secretary (and head of the Home Civil Service) from 2002-2005. He told me that political pressure on civil servants prevented people in the Treasury coming forwards and telling ministers that borrowing levels were too high before the credit crunch.

He also criticised the Academies Bill for shifting focus from boosting under-achieving schools to allowing thriving schools to press further ahead.

And, he told me that the Tories’ measures to redraw the election boundaries is “politically motivated” and is designed to negate the effect that electoral reform would have on their poll standing. This point has been made before, but not by a former cabinet secretary.

Other high-ranking civil servants I have interviewed include the now-retired permanent secretary (head civil servant) of the Scottish Executive, Sir John Elvidge. It was the last interview he gave before he retired, and as well as discussing the difficulties of serving a coalition, he also talked about the problems that spending cuts would present to Scottish politicians.

I combined the interview with a broader essay on the lessons that can be learned from Scotland’s experience of coalition governments. A key finding was the importance of special advisers on the political process – and the surprising discovery that civil servants in particular valued the role of often-denigrated political advisers.

Amongst others, I have also interviewed Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, transport minister Norman Baker, foreign office minister Lord Howell, chairman of the Olympic Development Agency John Armitt, and am soon to publish a joint interview with the heads of the Sustainable Development Commission – the recently scrapped government environmental watchdog. Stay tuned …

Scoops

I’ve broken a number of scoops in my months at Civil Service World, here are the best:

[update November 2010] A week before Martha Lane Fox recommended that the government combine all its online public services into one website,I exclusively reported this.

My first story was when a special adviser let slip to me that DWP planned to scrap Labour’s Pathways to Work scheme as part of its work programme.

I then broke a couple of stories about endemic data loss in the NHS, prompting the ICO to change its behaviour and sanction two NHS trusts as I was researching a followup special report.

And most recently, I broke the news that Defra planned to scrap its funding to the Sustainable Development Commission, which has now been formally announced.

None of them are Watergate, admittedly, but I like to think I’m reporting on serious issues and keeping track of what’s actually going on in Whitehall.

Blogging

I write an infrequently updated blog on the Civil Service Live Network, covering Whitehall issues. I also tweet primarily from @CSWnews .

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How negotiations should work

Recently, I interviewed the man who chaired negotiations that ended apartheid.  I was struck by his advice for successful coalition-building and how markedly it differs from the path the Tories and Lib Dems are taking.

Michael Young set up negotiations between the ANC and apartheid government as a businessman seeking to solve the longstanding divide (made into the film Endgame). Here is his template:

“The secret is to take them away from the theatre where it’s all happening, where everybody is shouting the odds, where the media pick it all up and every nuance and every twist is dissected – it sets the process back hugely. You get the guys under the radar and be very careful that you’ve picked the right guys, not at the top of the tree because people at the top of the tree probably have arrived and their appetite for longevity and longer-term vision isn’t there. They will be younger, they will have enough core within their constituency, enough intellectual agility to be able to observe and absorb.”

Nick Clegg and David Cameron are doing the opposite. We know they have spoken one-to-one to try to reach a deal while Young says the secret of agreement is to reach it between the party bases rather than merely at the top. It’s no secret that the Lib Dem base is closer to the Labour party. To bring about a transition where Libs and Cons are comfortable with each other, it takes more than the agreement of two people.

David Cameron decided to publicly set out his stall in the media spotlight, where every twist is being dissected. It was striking that Alex Salmond yesterday stated he had learned not to publicly give away his position before negotiating – the SNP leader of course having experience in the Scottish Parliament. The civil service are ready to guide this transition, not the BBC.

As I write this, I see Lib Dems have briefed Jon Sopel that Gordon Brown was far ruder than David Cameron in discussions [and now conflicting reports have emerged]. Since when was this about personality, and certainly since when was this about Gordon Brown? Not even Labour see him as an obstacle to a Lib-Lab coalition, remember Mandelson yesterday said there are “a number of permutations”.

I’m not, as an inexperienced election-watcher, going to presume whether talks are a success or not¹. But surely they would be smoother if both sides spoke more to each other and less to the press (although it pains me to say it). Certainly the public has a right to know what’s happening, but anonymous briefings from ‘senior sources’ are more likely to give an impression desired by the party HQs than an accurate understanding of what’s going on.

¹But I can’t resist branding any potential coalition ‘the timebomb coalition’, because surely that’s what it would be. Imagine Business Secretary Cable going to meet with EU counterparts – whose grassroots would he listen to?

Expenses! David Davis’s pearls of wisdom

I spoke to David Davis, former shadow home secretary today. We are setting up an interview in the next few weeks – should be good.

In the course of conversation, I asked him about expenses (the Telegraph reported he claimed £5,700 to refurbish his portico). He clarified that actually the cash was for “a big door”. Then he said something that I found really interesting.

“Frankly, I’m just bored of talking about expenses.”

Struck me as an interesting remark. I wouldn’t make too much of it, certainly not before I get to chat to him for longer, anyhow!

UPDATE 23rd May: I have just read a post by Dizzy Thinks, courtesy of a link from Comment Central. I think it puts Davis’s big door on right side of a ‘necessary/unnecessary’ claim dichotomy. After all, I believe the old one was rotten.

Free Speech at the University of York

Here’s an interview I did last December. I’m proud of it. There’s a proper report of the story from my friends at The Yorker but I’ll tell you my side of it below.

One of the student papers here at York, Vision, published a piece rating student politicians on their performance. An hour after the copies were handed out, they were recollected. Copies were pulled out of students hands sitting in coffee shops and there was no information provided on the issue.

Two days later, the papers were handed out again. The article had been removed and there was a suspicious cut out in each copy where an opinion piece had been. I was intrigued and irritated that nothing had been said about this. Surely we had a right to know?

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Hilary Benn on Binyam Mohamed

This was quite a big deal for me, quite a while ago now. The Rt. Hon. Hilary Benn was none too pleased with my style. I stand by it, I wouldn’t be so forthright in every interview but I thought it was essential when discussing this issue. Why did I raise it with the Secretary of State for Agriculture and Rural Affairs? No-one else had raised it with any member of the cabinet, certainly not in the same amount of depth. I only wish I’d confirmed the interview earlier than on the morning of it … I would have loved to have had some notes and done more research than merely reading the newspapers every day.

See some of the critical acclaim it received below:

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James Purnell on Welfare Reform

This is an interview with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. First aired on University Radio York, it was recorded on 11th December 2008, just after the white paper on welfare reform was published and at the same time as a(nother) scandal about the expenses of Michael Martin, Speaker of the House, was raging.

I pushed him on both.

He’s a tricky character, and I must admit, I was outmanoeuvred twice. First, when I asked him whether unemployment would increase in 2009. He responded, ‘we don’t predict unemployment’. A BBC reporter later told me about this trick – technically, they would still have been using figures that didn’t predict unemployment (data from the early credit-crunch days). Second, I repeatedly questioned his support of the speaker of the House of Commons and whether he would support him in a run for a third term. His response: ‘I have full confidence in the speaker of the house’ and his press secretary called time on the interview.

p.s. Listen to this bonus clip I caught on my recorder. Sec State clearly has ambition …