Nicola Hughes (NH): Thinking back to when you very first started as a Minister, what was that like coming into government for the first time?
Lord Hunt (LH): Well I suppose there’s two things; I came in as a Whip and one thing about the Lords is that, unlike the Commons, being a Whip gives you a lot of opportunities at the dispatch box and a certain insight into the way government departments run. So I had about ten months as a Whip and it’s a fantastic introduction into being a Minister. I was Health and Education Whip and the thing that surprised me immediately about being in government, even when I was just on the fringes of it, is how much Parliament has an impact on what you do and your time. I had always believed the view you see in the media that Parliament doesn’t really count very much; I hadn’t realised how much time departments and ministers actually have to spend here worrying about what’s going to happen in Parliament or preparing for things.
My first day as a Whip answering two oral questions was terrifying, absolutely terrifying; in front of 450 peers answering employment and education questions and I knew nothing. But you’re suddenly there as a representative of the government, expected by the House to know everything that they potentially could ask. But it’s a great experience as a Whip and, you know, you learn from your mistakes. But being a full Minister, going straight in without that Whip experience puts you at a disadvantage.
The thing that surprised me immediately about being in government… is how much Parliament has an impact on what you do and your time
The other thing it gave me immediately was an insight into the way two different departments ran. So the Department of Health [DH] under Frank Dobson and the Department for Education under David Blunkett and they were totally different. Frank, who was a great, a lovely guy and I think much under-appreciated by Tony Blair and the team at Number 10, but he never had ministerial meetings. So during the year I was a Whip, I never met the ministerial team, even though I knew them. David Blunkett ran it [differently] there was a weekly meeting of Ministers but he…and he had a very good Permanent Secretary called Michael Bichard who you may have come across.
NH: He was our founding Director!
LH: OK, well you know Michael, so Michael was Perm Sec [Permanent Secretary] and they had a departmental board on which Ministers sat with Non-Execs and that was a revelation to me and the contrast between the two departments. David was a hugely impressive Minister, knew what he wanted, very good with people. Officials responded well to that kind of leadership and then having someone like Bichard as a highly effective Perm Sec was a real asset. He’d been in local government too, so he had a great background for Education. It was fascinating.
Peter Riddell (PR): You came in via the Whip’s route and then had these functions later on, were you given any briefing at all or preparation by the Civil Service?
LH: No, none at all.
PR: What happened when you became a full Minister, later on?
LH: None at all, no. That was very funny because…I mean, you need to know why I’m in the House of Lords really. I’m in the House of Lords because Frank Dobson refused to have me as his special adviser and as the way of these things, as compensation, Number 10 decided I should come here instead. The great irony was that he was my first departmental minister I went to serve. He was perfectly friendly. He had somehow argued with Number 10 to get an extra minister because there was something about extra work. So Gisela Stuart (Labour MP) and I were appointed on the same day and we went to see Frank the next day and he had this list, because we were replacing one minister, so he had this list of responsibilities that the person we succeeded did, and he simply ticked off – ‘Well Gisela can do one, you can do the other.’ So, that was the great approach to deciding which portfolios we should have and that was it! You’re completely on your own.
That was the great approach to deciding which portfolios we should have and that was it! You’re completely on your own.
NH: And have you in any of your subsequent roles been able to steer a bit, you know, these are the areas that I’m interested in or this is where my skills are best suited?
LH: No, not really because often, you are going into a department, where there has already been a minister doing something; you’ve got the others in the team who have probably been there longer, therefore, they’re not probably going to disrupt what they’re doing, so the rule tends to be, certainly at junior minister level, is you just pick up what you’re given. I mean, obviously changes can be made from time to time for whatever reason, but in my experience, you start with what you inherit. Now sometimes, if someone’s been assertive, in the sort of 24 hours between someone leaving, one way or another, and a new person coming, a smart minister of state might get in to see the boss and get dropped from something that’s horrible, or pick up something that was interesting, but in general, you do tend to inherit what was there before.
NH: When you inherit something, or when you got moved to a different department, how did you get your head round the new policy brief?
LH: Well, going back to my first job, like everything, you get a wonderful folder which goes through each of the policy areas you are responsible for and it does point up some of the issues you’re going to have to face. Then following that, you get a load of introduction meetings with officials who are dealing with each of those areas. That wonderful period lasts about three days and they don’t let you near decisions until then, and they keep the paperwork away from you.
PR: Lords Ministers, because traditionally there had been a division and actually, there was a shift during the period you were a minister, but if you go back, say pre-your time in the Lords, a lot of the Tory ones were effectively doing what you were doing as a Whip, which is the essay crisis problem – ‘how do I quickly mug up on this so I can get through the eight minutes?’ – and then it developed to having proper ministers in Lords with proper responsibilities and doing proper jobs, I mean, look at the cohort of ministers with you who had substantive jobs in all kinds of ways. So, how did you see that evolution?
LH: I think it happened right from the start of the Blair government. So, I don’t think it was an evolution because I never had any impression that suddenly this was new and it seemed to be just accepted that I was a normal departmental minister. So, I think it must have happened just in ’97.
PR: And how did the Civil Service treat you? Did they regard you as some kind of exotic species who was necessary because we’ve got to take bills through the Lords?
LH: No. No, I don’t recall any problem with officials in that sense at all and throughout my time, I just think we were treated in the same way. They liked us too because, in general, we were more experienced than any of our colleagues. Most of us had experience of running things. We were much politer than, in general, our Commons colleagues and much more rational, but of course…
NH: That’s a picture of the Lords generally.
LH: Yes of course, but you’ve got to remember why. We don’t have constituents, we don’t have to worry about re-selection. Most of us had achieved something, so ambition is less, I would say, even amongst people in ministerial positions, so I think we can be more relaxed. But I just think the fact most of us had run things, that makes a hell of a difference. We are used to making decisions; we’re used to dealing with people. On my second evening there was a small scale dinner with David Sainsbury [Lord Sainsbury, former science minister] and Sir John Patterson who was our Chief Scientific Officer to discuss research and development and this was completely new to me and I remember thinking, ‘My god, what have I walked into here?’, because it was at such a high level but, in general, I think that we can cope with ministerial life in a much easier way than perhaps many of our colleagues could in the Commons.
We [Lords ministers] don’t have constituents, we don’t have to worry about re-selection… so I think we can be more relaxed
PR: That’s very interesting. I think for a number of points you made: one, is you virtually all had done proper jobs before and that is really interesting because I think one of the problems is, as you say, lots of MPs have run small businesses, like their constituency office, they haven’t really done anything. Also, you say about the pressure, but one thing, if you look at your CV, you’re moving around all the time. How did that work out? Because it is a classic lament that Ministers are not long enough in their department and you were a real victim of that until the last two years.
LH: Yes, well it does enable you to escape from your errors and submissions! I found it stimulating. I don’t buy that. I think you can learn; whatever field you’re in, you can learn it up within a few weeks. So, it was never a problem. I can recognise any issue, you know, I can translate an NHS issue into Defra [Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs], worried about the farmers, or into energy. It doesn’t take long to learn it up. OK, a certain level of superficiality. Remember, you have to do it for Parliament, you have to be an expert on the floor with often very little preparation, so you kind of get trained into it and again, I think most people in those positions, the jobs we’ve done, we’ve had to do that and you know you have to pick stuff up, learn it, probably forget it and move on.
You have to do it for Parliament, you have to be an expert on the floor with often very little preparation…
PR: What about taking through a change, particularly with this issue of junior ministers being… kind of in rotation and then the interruption. You’d start doing something and then oops, you’re off.
LH: Yes. So that’s more of a problem, I think, for government as a whole than it is for the individual ministers but it doesn’t…I mean, Jeremy Hunt’s interesting isn’t he, I think the longest serving Health Secretary there’s been but I would say one of the worst secretary of state’s we’ve ever had, and the whole thing’s unravelling. So, he has taken the same short term approach; he’s had little understanding of the consequences of the decisions he took five years ago. He’s now reaping the rewards of that. So, there is this issue about consistency of policy and then having somebody who knows their business in terms of implementation, also stakeholders get to know you and obviously, if you’ve got a good run, you do get to know characters. That can pay off. Sometimes when you’ve got intractable problems, just getting to know people can help out, but I think from an individual ministerial point of view, I’ve never found it a problem.
NH: How did the different departments you worked in compare?
LH: Yes, they’re all different. Fascinating. They’re all run completely differently and there’s a culture there, there’s a way they do it and in a sense, you adapt. Secretaries of state clearly change the dynamic and the way it works but underlying it, there’s a sort of: ‘this is the way [you] do things at Defra’ and you don’t really see changes in that. But you know, private offices work the same, the people you know best I suppose are private offices, they tend to be kind of the same young, hardworking people, wherever you are. Perm Secs, in general, are a sort of breed that you can recognise. I mean, I had an amazing variety of Perm Secs, I mean, Bichard and then of course, we had people at the Department of Health, there was Nigel Crisp, Dame Helen Ghosh at Defra; she was a dynamic Perm Sec and then Moira Wallace at Energy [the Department of Energy and Climate Change].
PR: But how did you…you talk about characters in the departments. What about when you were joint Minister, how did that work out because we get conflicting views on this.
LH: It’s a nightmare, it doesn’t work. Believe me, it doesn’t work.
PR: In what ways doesn’t it work?
LH: Well it is practical. First of all, departments don’t really work together so even if you have a joint minister, what effectively you are is a minister in one department and then a minister in another department and there isn’t, I think, a mechanism whereby you are treated differently because you straddle both. So in one department, your loyalty is to that department, Defra, then I could go to DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change] at the other end of Whitehall and my loyalty was to DECC there. The first issue is, I think, you conclude you can’t have two private offices. You probably ought to, to make it work better but it wouldn’t really work. So, you have one private office, so where is it based? Well, that becomes your home department. Almost inevitably. So, I was based in Defra with this joint job. That was partly practical, in Defra, they had lovely offices, it was the old ICI [Imperial Chemical Industries] headquarters. It is the most wonderful…I had this office overlooking MI5 with a great balcony there and all DECC would offer was a little box room, because it was a new department which no-one knew was being set up, so there was nothing there to start with. I stayed at Defra and then popped into DECC.
Departments don’t really work together… even if you have a joint minister
But you get practical things, like the ministerial team meetings could clash or going to two ministerial meetings a week with your other diary commitments became rather difficult. So, I mean, take George Freeman… I don’t know if you’ve interviewed George Freeman because he has got a very interesting job between BIS and the Department of Health with life sciences, R&D and the connection between the NHS and investment. So, it’s a really important job. And I like him as a Minister; he is outgoing; he is prepared to meet with people like us, but I think the word on the street is that whilst he can influence the Department of Health when it comes to supporting research, on the core issue of persuading the NHS to invest in UK innovation, he’s not getting anywhere and I think unless he were also the DH Minister with a clear remit for the way the NHS runs, I think it’s very difficult for anyone to make the appointment work. Much better was our approach to cross-departmental targets. PSAs weren’t they?
PR: Yes they were.
LH: Cross-departmental Public Service Agreements. I mean this government doesn’t seem interested in cross-department working; it’s not, it seems to me, in its DNA, but we were and I think the cross-departmental targets were a much more effective way of getting joint working than joint ministers.
NH: Is that because you…everyone felt accountable for delivering them?
LH: Yes, because if the Perm Secs bought into it and felt pressure on it, then it did, I think, help to make things happen. I mean targets, we all know. We over-did targets, but some of them are really helpful and if it’s underpinned by Cabinet Committee that straddles an issue, that helps. It has to be on the big things. If you have 25 cross-departmental targets, for each department, it’s a waste of time but if you can focus down on a few really important ones, then I think you can make it bite, but you need Number 10 to support that process as well.
We over-did targets, but some of them are really helpful and if it’s underpinned by Cabinet Committee that straddles an issue, that helps.
PR: How much did Number 10 impinge on your life?
LH: Well, the Blair/Brown governments were quite controlling from Number 10. It was always advisable to keep in touch with the Prime Minister’s policy adviser on health issues, when I was at the Department of Health. For any junior minister tactically, it would always be sensible to keep on very friendly terms with those people in Number 10. But they did keep a very close eye on what was going on and I certainly felt they shadowed what we did, just as I was shadowed by the Secretary of State’s office. Before you get to government, you don’t realise how it works but in a secretary of state’s office, they’ll have an Assistant Private Secretary who shadows you as a minister, so they go through all the papers you get, they see the decisions and if they think it should be called in by the secretary of state, they’ll advise the secretary of state to do so. And in a similar way, you always felt Number 10 was overseeing almost everything one did and Tony [Blair] was remarkable actually. On this I don’t know if you know but he had a regular stock take with ministerial teams. I think he is the only prime minister that has ever done it and of course, they were terrifying! Particularly if you’re a junior minister and it is one of your areas. I mean, I had dentistry. It was a bad pass, to be given responsibility for dentistry. Tony had made this stupid pledge that anyone who wanted an NHS dentist could be seen and I had to implement it. And the real bugger was we did it… I got some tough NHS managers to come in and we actually achieved it. We couldn’t advertise it, if we did, the demand would go up and then we’d fail, so we got no credit. But I had to go across every month to explain to Tony why it was taking time to get this done and he had this awful expression. He was a cold man and if you blah-ed on and it was obvious, you know, that you were waffling, his eyes glazed over. Awful. Awful! And you went away feeling humiliated. But he was good. I must say, I think in terms of you feeling you are accountable, I think it was brilliant, but Gordon didn’t do any of that and I don’t know if the current Prime Minister does.
Tony had made this stupid pledge that anyone who wanted an NHS dentist could be seen and I had to implement it.
LH: Intermittently. It’s very good. And it was all prepared beforehand. His special adviser on health would have sorted it out with our boss’s team, so we knew the issues that were going to be raised.
PR: That [the adviser] was Simon Stevens wasn’t it?
LH: Yes. That was another bad thing for us, in that [Alan] Milburn’s special adviser went over to Number 10, Simon Stevens, who is very clever, you know, having Simon next door to the Prime Minister, while you are giving out your pitiful reasons why you haven’t succeeded, it was terrifying.
PR: What about the Treasury? You mentioned Gordon.
LH: Ah, the Treasury. They didn’t impinge on us, we were never allowed near them. It was always officials and then the special advisers in my experience.
PR: And how important were the special advisers. You mentioned Number 10’s special advisers, what about departmental ones?
LH: Pretty important. Best to keep on good terms with them and friendly with them. Alan Milburn appointed really bright people which is a good sign but you knew that they could intervene at any time and that if they did, you know, the boss would support them.
NH: What other sorts of ways did you make your relationship with the secretaries of state work?
LH: The great thing about being a Lords Minister is that the rest of the team don’t have a clue about this place and don’t want to know, but they know its trouble because we didn’t have the majority. So, I think by being good there; by winning some key votes, it enhanced my credibility. I won two big votes on embryonic stem cell research, which we thought we were going to lose and which Number 10 was very keen on because it potentially would lead to a big investment in stem cell research in the UK, but we won that vote and then we also had a big debate about over-the-counter oral contraceptive availability. At that time, the Lords still had a lot of people who were very concerned about social issues and it was very socially conservative, at the time. Do you remember Baroness Blatch?
LH: …who was actually an extraordinary woman, a very capable woman. She was an education minister for John Major and maybe Mrs Thatcher but she led the campaign against these kind of things and at the time, it was very powerful but I was able to win those votes and that gave me, I think, a great deal more leverage with Alan Millburn because of that.
The great thing about being a Lords Minister is that the rest of the team don’t have a clue about this place and don’t want to know, but they know its trouble…
PR: What would you describe as your major achievements in office?
LH: Yes, well I always say stem cell research actually.
PR: Yes well it is interesting, it’s a parliamentary one. It is an interesting definition. It is a parliamentary one rather than saying implementing a change on the ground or something.
LH: Yes, well in the Department of Health, believe it or not, I would say the bloody dental pledge [laughter]. We actually achieved it. And by the way, this is part of the problem with the short term, it is that you might start a policy, you might continue it or you might conclude it but you’re very rarely going to be in a position to say, ‘as a result of something there: that happened.’
OK, so things that I recollect, well at DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], I left over Iraq in 2003 and I was brought back in 2005, but I was made to work my passage at the DWP and I was given Health and Safety and the Child Support Agency as my two areas. On child support, we started the work towards getting rid of compulsion. I mean, I don’t know if you want to know the history of this but the Child Support Agency was set up by Mrs Thatcher as a way to deal with spendthrift men who were not supporting their children. She thought and the Treasury thought they would raise loads of dosh because they were paying benefits out to the women. So, when it was brought in, in about ’91, I think, although Thatcher had moved by then, anyway, the point was that they made the decision that they wouldn’t just put new people on, retrospectively, they’d try and get all the ‘bad dads’ on and the system collapsed. When I got there, they had in the basement in Newcastle, where it was based, hundreds of thousands of files that had never been touched and it was a total nightmare. Now, I don’t pretend it’s all got better but you don’t hear about it so much and because what basically happened is we worked towards being able to write off a lot of the cases. And then moving to a position where it wasn’t – because you see, if you were on benefits, it was compulsory, women were made to use it, even if they had unofficial payments which they were happy with they still had to use the bloody system – and so we started the work on getting rid of compulsion. So it’s not very heroic!
…you might start a policy, you might continue it or you might conclude it but you’re very rarely going to be in a position to say, ‘as a result of something there: that happened.’
At DECC, the big thing was, which I’m afraid it’s not going to succeed any more, but just getting nuclear power back on the road. So, the government, before I got there, produced the white paper saying we were prepared to go back to nuclear energy and I spent my two years working a lot with the industry and EDF [the energy company]. We laid the foundation and that was really exciting because, this is my view, but the Government previously had made some hugely foolish decisions about nuclear energy. We were first in the field for peaceful nuclear energy in the ‘50s; we could have been global leaders. We had a chance in the ‘70s but after Chernobyl we stopped new developments and stopped research. I still think, potentially, there is still room for a UK supply chain if Hinkley [power plant] and others can be made to work. I’m not sure it can be, I mean, I think it’s a wing and a prayer at the moment and there was an article today about the Chinese [taking it over], it all looks ropey, but at that point, we thought we had a great chance of starting a new supply chain.
PR: What advice would you give to a new Lords Minister?
LH: Right, the key thing is to focus on making sure you’re OK in the Lords because if you’re not, you’re finished. And I can see, now the ones that will answer a question, then march out; they don’t get that you need to soak up the atmosphere and I think if you’ve got this place sorted, it’s a great foundation for everything else.
The key thing is to focus on making sure you’re OK in the Lords because if you’re not, you’re finished
PR: It’s so evident. Because for the reason you identified earlier, and even more true of Prime Ministers; Prime Ministers don’t understand it. They say they want an expert and it happened with some of the GOATs [ministers who were a Government of All Talents], that Tony or Gordon in that case…
LH: Gordon particularly, yes.
PR: Gordon didn’t tell them they had to do things here [in the House], well hold on you’ve got to do two questions tomorrow!
LH: Yes. So that is the first thing. The second thing is you know, all the books, [Gerald] Kaufman’s book, they all say ‘focus’ and they’re right. When you get that great folder at the beginning, somehow, and you have to do it quickly, you’ve got to sort out where ministerial input would really make a difference and if you don’t do it early, you just get overtaken by events. There is so much being thrown at you.
NH: How can you stick to it once you’ve decided? How do you make sure your diary doesn’t get overtaken?
LH: It’s very easy, I mean, if you are clear with your private office and your Private Secretary that whatever happens and whatever the day-to-day stuff, you are going to focus on these three or four areas, they’ll work it for you. But you’ve got to be determined to do it and you’ve got to want to do it and the private office will do it. They’ve got to manage the work; they’ve got to manage the flow. So I suppose the deal is you still have to do your boxes. You have to make decisions, get the stuff through, but you can focus if you really want to and they’ll work with you to do it and that means you can then work with the officials you want to work with. That’s the other great thing I found, is that I never found officials obstructive but if it is not working with an official, then get them changed, just talk to the Permanent Secretary and you get them changed or things happen, you know.
PR: Did anyone ever do an appraisal on your performance? Did anyone say, you know, you are doing very well on this therefore, you need to…?
LH: Not… no I don’t really think so. Certainly not in any formal sense. Clearly, if you made a mistake, you could be summoned for a bollocking and you could also be praised but that’s about it. But I don’t think in any formal sense, that I can remember, and as you know, I mean, I’m not sure prime ministers want it anyway because they don’t want anything that gets in the way of their ability to shuffle people and the last thing they would want is some system marked up by officials. Even though Whitehall does it, doesn’t it? Because I assume they do it?
PR: Before a re-shuffle, the Cabinet Secretary may talk to his colleagues about how people are doing, but of course their perspective is not the same, especially with Lords Ministers.
LH: And it’s much more likely to be ‘how good are they doing at their boxes’. Because that’s what I found, I mean, when I went in, a lot of ministers just couldn’t make decisions or couldn’t keep pace with things. And if you can do that, you will find officialdom relates to you in any case. My wife was talking to an official in the Department for Education about their experience of education over the last 20 years, and he said the two secretary of states he most liked working with were Blunkett and Gove. So completely different in policy but both of them supremely confident in what they want to do; able to make decisions and that’s what they like.
NH: Sorry, I think we interrupted your advice, you had get it right in the Lords, focus, is there anything else?
LH: Make sure you engage with the key stakeholders and pay a lot of attention to them. Smooth them. I think those are the three main things, for me.
NH: Was there anything you found frustrating about being a Minister?
LH: It’s the sheer hours you spend on drudge and at the Department of Health and as Minister for CSA [Child Support Agency], particularly, the letters from MPs. The hours you spent having to do these bloody letters and the box work, I mean, because ministers deal with minutiae. That’s the other funny thing about Whitehall. I don’t think people realise what small items have to be submitted to ministers for approval, which in any other walk of life would never, ever get through to the boss. We haven’t found clear ways of delegating to officials. I don’t think Perm Secs have been good at that either. I think they are just used to the process of submissions.
That’s the other funny thing about Whitehall. I don’t think people realise what small items have to be submitted to ministers for approval…
NH: And so did you see quite a clear line between Perm Sec role versus ministerial role?
LH: Yes, they’re parallel universes. It’s [a] strange, extraordinary world where you’ve got ministers and then you’ve got the Perm Sec’s operation, and sometimes you feel the twain shall never meet. And we didn’t see Perm Secs very much because Perm Secs don’t come in our policy discussions or not very often. You can ask them for advice but in the main, they’re completely separate. Very odd.
NH: Yes. And particularly for you having, as you said before, run stuff outside of government, did you take much interest in the more organisational stuff that the perm secs are doing?
LH: I’m probably more interested than most of my colleagues, but you’re really kept away from that. Understandably. I am still very cautious about the idea of ministers appointing people into departments; I mean, perm secs tend to reserve that for themselves in their performance appraisal. If you had a problem with an official, then the perm sec would deal with it, particularly with your private office if it wasn’t going very well. They would deal with that sort of thing. The thing that really… what is so interesting is that most of the time, you deal with junior officials, as ministers because it’s the branch heads, usually the Grade 7s, I guess, the first rung of the officer class who you tend to relate to. Often you pondered, what does the perm sec do? Where are the grade 2’s, where are they? What do they do? I never discovered! You’d see them occasionally at very high level policy discussions, but often in a week, you wouldn’t meet. You would see the perm sec in the corridor, but you wouldn’t have a meeting with them and when you went for meetings with the secretary of state, if it was an area of your responsibility that he or she were interested in, you wouldn’t expect to see the perm sec there. Maybe for secretaries of state it was different, but I’m not sure it was.
Often you pondered, what does the perm sec do… What do they do? I never discovered!
PR: We had a comparable discussion and we made the point that perm secs are hardly mentioned in these interviews, and people said ‘I’m not surprised really because, on the whole, they only appear when there’s a problem’, otherwise, the rest of the machine works.
LH: I mean, Nigel Crisp [former Health Permanent Secretary] was at one end of Richmond House and I think he saw the Secretary of State at 5 o’clock on a Monday. I could sense the tension as Nigel went down to get the weekly bollocking [laughter]. But then Milburn was one of the best secretary of states that we’ve ever had. It is a great job though, you know, I was looking forward last May to having another go and I loved it. I mean, I was stressed by it, but it is a fantastic job too. You know, nothing like it. I still pine for it, you know, even after six years. If you can just really make something of it and if you can grip some really interesting issues, what is there not to like about it?