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Lord Butler, former cabinet secretary
Lord Butler, former cabinet secretary

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: And now we go on from international sport to affairs of state, and the continuing issue of the Transport Secretary and his involvement in the resignation - or was it a dismissal or a non-resignation - of his press secretary. On Thursday, the head of the top civil servants' union claimed that the traditional role of civil servants, their impartiality, is under threat as never before. I'm joined now, delighted to be joined from Paris, by the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler. Robin, good morning.

LORD BUTLER: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: Impartiality of the civil service under threat, or in danger. Is that the situation do you think?

LORD BUTLER: I don't think so. The impartiality of the civil service is deeply imbued in the civil service. I don't see it as under any great threat but since there has been all this to-do, I think there is something to be said for having a civil service act which will entrench all this. So I am in favour of that.

DAVID FROST: A civil service act which has been promised but, Lord Falconer said the other day as soon as there was time, but probably you're not holding your breath?

LORD BUTLER: Yes will I, you see I don't think that a civil service act would have prevented this last row. It, the, it can't govern the, when people have arguments with each other, and it is important to get it right. So I think Lord Falconer is right to say that there should be consultation but I hope that the Government will carry through what they said they'll do and have an Act before the end of this parliament.

DAVID FROST: And Lord Armstrong said in The Spectator this week that, he said, warned, that political-joggery is returning and that the principles of good administration are being put at risk. Do you feel that?

LORD BUTLER: I, I'm not so worried about that. I think that there have been special advisors under both governments, I think they perform a useful role. But of course what's very important - and I think the country's been well served by - is having a permanent civil service close to ministers. To have people whose jobs don't depend on ministers close to them has been very valuable, I think, in keeping the honesty of government in this country, and that's a very important thing to maintain and I'm sure that the Government means to maintain it but now to entrench it in an Act I think would be a help.

DAVID FROST: But this situation, something went severely wrong in the current Byers situation, didn't it?

LORD BUTLER: Yes, I mean things do go wrong from time to time. I remember under the previous government there was a row with a special advisor, ... Walters, which caused the Chancellor of the Exchequer to resign, no less. So these things are not unprecedented.

DAVID FROST: Not unprecedented, but people do seem to feel that the 80 special advisors, particularly in the information area, those that are in the information area, do constitute a threat.

LORD BUTLER: I, I don't see that. I wouldn't, I don't think you can say that there's any magic number of special advisors there ought to be. But I think any minister will listen to special advisors but also listen to the civil service. The Government won't achieve its objective of reforming the public services by relying on special advisors alone, they need the civil service to help them with that - they know that perfectly well and what's important is that each should fulfil its proper role.

DAVID FROST: You had to, Robin, though, you had to do one or two things, did you not? Jonathan Powell you said could not have the post that it was first suggested that he have because that must go to a civil servant.

LORD BUTLER: Yes and I think that there are some jobs which certainly ought to be preserved for civil servants. The permanent secretary of a department ought always, in my view, to be a permanent civil servant. I think the minister's principal private secretary ought to be a civil servant. I think there's a strong case for having a spokesman in each department who is a civil servant, so that the press can be sure they're getting objective advice - now that doesn't rule out special advisors also arguing the political case for ministers but I think that there are certain jobs which are best done by civil servants and I hope that's what might be protected by a civil service act.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the way government operates at the moment, Cabinet ministers, we are told, have a Cabinet meeting that lasts less than an hour and that we have a bilateral form of government, where the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer is one on one with ministers and that Cabinet ministers are under a, under an hour in Cabinet. Does that seem odd to you, that's not what you were brought up on, or is it just as good a system?

LORD BUTLER: Well I served under five Prime Ministers and all used the Cabinet differently. I think in some ways the way in which Mr Blair uses the Cabinet goes back to the old 18th century idea of political colleagues meeting once a week and sharing the political news and more is done outside the Cabinet. Now there's not, no, nothing in the British constitution that says that that's wrong. Every prime minister and his colleagues find the way in which they're comfortable with running the government, and that's their privilege.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the future, Sir Richard Wilson, your successor, is resigning to follow your example, except at Cambridge rather than Oxford.

LORD BUTLER: Retiring - retiring rather than resigning.

DAVID FROST: Well that's true, that's true, because the word resigning has all sorts of meanings.

LORD BUTLER: Absolutely.


LORD BUTLER: He's coming up to retiring age, like I did.

DAVID FROST: Very, very true. But in fact there is talk isn't there, that maybe these two posts that you had and he had, the two posts of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, could, by this Government, be split in two and have two different people doing those roles. Would that be a good idea or a bad idea?

LORD BUTLER: Ah yes. There has been talk of it - and there was talk of it when I was appointed, there always is talk of it. But I think it would be a bad idea and indeed I gather that the Government have now decided that they're going to keep the two posts together, and I think that that is greatly in the interests of the Prime Minister, to have a powerful civil service right-hand man, and I'm very glad that that's what they seem to have decided.

DAVID FROST: And in fact, in the current situation where we had basically a minister attempting to dismiss, still attempting to dismiss, to sack, a civil servant, are you happy about that situation?

LORD BUTLER: Well I - that's not what I understand happened. Of course we don't know completely what did happen, and as I understand it there's still a dispute about whether Martin Sixsmith resigned or whether he didn't resign. But I think everybody would agree that a minister can't dismiss a civil servant. A civil servant, like any other employee, is entitled to proper procedures before he's dismissed. But if Mr Sixsmith resigned, as I think the minister and the permanent secretary believe, then of course that's a different matter.

DAVID FROST: Yes I think the permanent secretary seems to have said two different things at different times. It's a mess though, isn't it?

LORD BUTLER: Well it is a mess but these messes happen from time to time, it's a great shame and I'm sad about it because - and I'm sure everybody in the government's sad about it because it distracts them from their other tasks - but you, you do get these little local difficulties from time to time.

DAVID FROST: As someone once said. Yes. Thank you very much for joining us, Robin, and I'm sorry that you had a sad and unsuccessful trip to Paris yesterday.

LORD BUTLER: Yes, not quite such a British triumph as your former interviewees.

DAVID FROST: That's right, we put them on -

LORD BUTLER: We're drowning our sorrows here.

DAVID FROST: Very good, well thank you for joining us this morning. A million thanks.

LORD BUTLER: Thank you David.


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