A reformer from a bygone era: What the Cummings saga tells us about British governance

Patrick Diamond writes that the Cummings coronavirus row has wider implications for the machinery of British government. These revolve around the status of political advisers and the future of Cummings’s state reform visions.

As the row over Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules escalates, threatening to engulf the entire Johnson Administration, it is worth reflecting on the implications of the dispute for the future of British governance more generally. The big questions that arise go beyond the details of Mr Cummings’s breach and the fundamental principles of propriety, truth, and integrity in high office. They concern how the machinery of government is likely to develop in the future.

The first implication is what this case tells us about the status of political advisers in British politics. The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers published by the Cabinet Office is clear that the purpose of political advisers is ‘to add a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers’. According to the official constitutional rationale, special advisers protect the neutrality of civil servants, undertaking tasks of a political nature which – if performed by officials – would undermine their ability to serve future governments of a different political complexion. Civil servants claim to welcome the presence of special advisers who provide knowledge and insight on issues of future policy, while offering steers on the political views of Ministers. The benign interpretation is that the British system of government cultivates a mutually beneficial partnership, a ‘governing marriage’ between Ministers, officials, and political appointees.

Certainly, there have been controversial special advisers before, many of whom were forced to resign because they breached the unwritten rule that political aides must never become the media story – the most pertinent recent examples being Theresa May’s notorious aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Yet Timothy and Hill were, by and large, backroom operators who were fired ultimately because their boss was politically weakened in the aftermath of the 2017 general election debacle. Without question, it is an important moment in the development of the British political system that a special adviser such as Dominic Cummings is able to hold their own impromptu press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street, taking questions from journalists while holding court in front of the world’s media.

Indeed, paragraph 14 of the Special Advisers Code states that, ‘Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets. They must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks, and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department’. The function of advisers is, ‘to represent the views of their Minister to the media’, rather than to justify their own actions or personal behaviour. In this extraordinary situation, Ministers are being sent onto the airwaves to defend the position of a political adviser. This is a remarkable moment.

The implications of Cummings’s media appearance will be far-reaching. We have reached a critical juncture, constitutionally a point of no return. There is likely to be growing pressure for special advisers to give testimony where they are involved in public controversies, notably to parliamentary select committees. Cummings’s actions will bolster the arguments of those who insist special advisers have a malign impact on the conduct of government, reducing civil servants to the status of ‘passive functionaries’ and politicising public administration. Cummings is a well-known critic of the British civil service. He regards the permanent bureaucracy as slow-moving, unimaginative, cumbersome, detached from seismic shifts in the world of technology and ideas. Cummings’s explicit goal is to ‘drain the swamp’ of the Whitehall bureaucracy, moving towards a ‘them and us’ model where civil servants no longer offer advice, but merely do what Ministers tell them. Civil servants become the implementors of policy rather than the initiators of policy; delivery agents, not ministerial advisers with the capacity to ‘speak truth to power’.

The second implication of the dispute is what the row tells us about the status of the institutional innovator and disrupter in the system of government. It may well be that Cummings’s mission to rewire the British state while radically recasting the Whitehall machinery is dead in the water. His ideas about how to reorganise the state machine might be deemed necessary for an age of disruption, but he will find formidable forces of conservatism in the government machine ranged against him, just at the moment his political capital is depleted badly. One difficulty is that Cummings is attempting to orchestrate change from the centre in 10 Downing Street. In the British system of government, it is departments that usually reign supreme. Departments are the centres of decision-making power, autonomous territories where policy is formulated, budgets are allocated, and implementation is co-ordinated. Even nominally powerful prime ministers with landslide parliamentary majorities such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair discovered that departments have the capacity to thwart the will of the centre.

Another problem is that resistance to fundamental change in the government machine comes not only from civil servants, but Ministers themselves. Away from the highly politicised centre of power in Number 10, Ministers by and large work closely with their officials who they regard as problem-solvers, Machiavellian fixers, loyal courtiers, and expert bureaucrats who know about how to drive through change, navigating the byzantine rituals of Whitehall. The tension is even more acute in a Conservative government, where traditionalists favour the preservation of existing institutions, upholding the long-standing Northcote-Trevelyan principles of impartiality and merit-based appointment. At the beginning of 2020 when Cummings went public with his plan to recruit dozens of ‘weirdo’ data scientists into government supplanting ostensibly ineffectual civil servants, a Cabinet Minister told The Times:‘One of the big problems with [Cummings’s] pull the pin out of the grenade, drop it in the bunker, and see what happens approach is that it is so destabilising…we take several steps backwards before we’ve even started’.

In the world after the pandemic, it is very probable that the debate about state reform in Britain will take a quite different direction to that envisaged by the Cummings’s prospectus. The state is back as an economic actor, and as such, thirty years of antipathy to government as a force for good may be waning. It is public servants who have ensured that furlough wages and benefits are paid on time, while businesses are protected. Discussion will centre on how to restore the capacity of government to tackle major challenges from strategic risks such as future pandemics and climate change, to the long-term implications of the crisis, notably tackling public health inequalities while repurposing institutions. Unquestionably, the overly centralised nature of the British state will come under renewed scrutiny. In this climate, Cummings may well appear a reformer from a bygone era.

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About the Author

Patrick Diamond is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former Government Special Adviser.

LSE blog

A policy scandal of epic proportions: Why a public inquiry into adult social care and Covid-19 is necessary

Bob Hudson makes the case for an inquiry into the government’s slow response to protecting adult social care settings from the coronavirus pandemic. He outlines the three key issues that such an investigation will need to address and the questions it must answer.

The longer the impact of COVID-19 in the UK has continued, the more the focus of concern has fallen upon adult social care. While the NHS has been relatively protected, social care has been overwhelmed: supplies of PPE have been unavailable; testing has been patchy or non-existent; patients have been discharged from hospitals into care homes and proceeded to spread the virus; deaths among residents have reached somewhere between 30-40% of all coronavirus-related deaths; and fatalities amongst social care staff are outstripping those of healthcare workers and the wider working population.

This is a policy scandal of epic proportions and now is exactly the right time to institute a public inquiry into events. At least three issues will need to be included in such an inquiry: fragility of provision; low policy salience; and unethical policy and practice.

Fragility of provision

The fragile financial structure of the industry is such that most providers were already unable to withstand even a minor downturn in income or an increase in costs. Within weeks of the outbreak, the Care Provider Alliance (representing about half of all care providers) was warning that the sector risked collapse without emergency funding to help pay wages and buy PPE. Similarly the UK Home Care Association said the financial pressures arising from the pandemic could force a significant number of the country’s 8,000 home care providers to close. The pandemic will surely require a fundamental reappraisal of a care market consisting of thousands of independent companies making their own decisions on where to set up, what to provide, and whether or not to continue.

This widespread instability equally applies to the voluntary sector where inherent weaknesses have been starkly exposed by COVID-19. Bookings for training and services have been cancelled, charity shops closed, community fundraising halted, and (in the case of the larger charities) investment portfolios reduced in value. A survey of the sector undertaken during the lockdown period found over half saying they would be bankrupt within six months without financial help. With the sector estimating a loss of £4billion, the allocation of £750m by the Chancellor was generally seen as inadequate – a view confirmed by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee. A sustainable future for the third sector has to be part of a new settlement.

Low policy salience

Adult social care is a residual means-tested service that has always struggled to achieve political attention. This has been exacerbated by COVID-19 in two ways: the easement of statutory duties, and the perception of the sector as a handmaiden to the needs of the NHS.

Rather than ensure that local councils are adequately funded and empowered to respond to the challenges thrown up by this crisis, one of the first responses of the government was to relieve them of their existing statutory obligations. The Coronavirus Act 2020 provided for the ‘easement’ of local authority duties in England and Wales around the provision of care and support needs. This meant they would no longer have to comply with their duty under the Care Act 2014 to conduct needs assessments and provide support unless failing to do so might constitute a breach of a person’s human rights. The latter constituted a very high bar indeed.

Within weeks of the availability of these measures, eight local authorities had taken up powers of easement, even though there was emerging evidence of a decline in the number of people coming forward to seek help because of fear of contracting the virus. Concerns are now being expressed that local authorities are entering into easement without even providing evidence that they have met the necessary legal thresholds.

The tangled relationship between adult social care and the NHS has a long history, with repeated concerns that the shape of the former has increasingly been determined by the needs of the latter. This has been very evident in the response to COVID-19 with the two sectors being treated very differently in terms of the availability of testing, PPE, and even in the ways deaths are recorded and counted. However, the ‘handmaiden’ role of adult social care is best seen in the allocation to local authorities of £1.3billion to rapidly free up 15,000 hospital beds for coronavirus patients by expediting discharge from hospital back home or to alternative accommodation (notably care homes) for those patients for whom a clinical setting was no longer deemed appropriate. This decision alone threw the sector into chaos and is likely to have accounted for many thousands of deaths.

Unethical policy and practice

Over the decades there has been little reflection on the place of ethics in adult social care policy and practice, so there is some irony in the fact that it took the coronavirus outbreak to finally produce an ‘ethical framework’ for the sector. Eight principles for organising and delivering care have been identified: respect; reasonableness; minimising harm; inclusiveness; accountability; flexibility; proportionality; and community. These are useful principles to guide behaviour in any circumstances and it might be considered unfortunate that it took a global pandemic for them to be formulated. Guidance set out ‘an expectation’ that local authorities will ‘observe’ the framework, but application of these principles in the face of tightening of access to support is bound to be difficult – if not impossible – to deliver.

In the meantime, the policy response to COVID-19 has been characterised by a series of highly dubious ethical decisions. The political and scientific interest in ‘herd immunity’ (and the implied acceptance of the deaths of large numbers of older and more vulnerable people) was central to the government’s decision-making in the crucial months of February and March. It was abandoned only when it became clear in an advice paper from Imperial College London that the NHS would be overwhelmed and up to 250,000 deaths, mostly of older people, would be likely.

This assumption that the lives of vulnerable groups are of second-order importance is also evident in other policies – the absence of PPE and testing in the care sector have been noted, but the most gross ethical breach has been in the transfer of infected and untested patients from hospitals to care homes. Not only are there reports of councils refusing to release payments unless these patients are admitted, but where fatalities occur, care homes are not equipped to deal with them ethically. There is typically no GP presence, no palliation, no fluids, no syringe drivers and no staff with end of life training.

Reports also emerged of residents in some care homes for older people being categorised en masse as not requiring resuscitation should they contract the disease. The Care Quality Commission had to step in and issue a warning for the practice to stop. A similar tale applied to adults of working age, with the National Institute for Clinical Excellence being forced to change its emergency guidance to NHS doctors, after disability groups threatened legal action over what they feared could result in certain patients not getting equal access to critical care. Meanwhile, there are no reliable figures available for coronavirus-related deaths amongst working age adults with a learning disability, autism or similar conditions and disabilities. The contrast with the government’s ethical framework could not be starker.

Time for a public inquiry

All of this amounts to a very serious charge sheet indeed, one that requires accountability to be identified and justice being seen to be done. It is insufficient for the government to suggest in vague terms that these matters can be addressed in the fullness of time; they are too urgent for that. The best way to address them is through a public inquiry. Some are already claiming that this is required as a matter of law under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

As former Department of Health permanent secretary Una O’Brien has argued, the public would need to be confident that all relevant documents, minutes, emails, texts and even Zoom records were handed over to the Inquiry in a timely way. There would also need to be assurances that politicians, officials, scientific and health experts and others would give their evidence willingly, under oath and in public. And there are four questions to be answered: What has happened? Why did it happen? Who is to blame? What can be done to prevent it happening again?

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About the Author

Bob Hudson is Professor at the Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/covid19-adult-social-care-inquiry/

Theresa May forced Grenfell investigators to lie about the cause of the fire – so she wouldn’t look bad

Theresa May forced Grenfell investigators to lie about the cause of the fire – so she wouldn’t look bad

Theresa May forced Grenfell investigators to lie about the cause of the fire – so she wouldn’t look bad


— Read on voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/11/08/theresa-may-forced-grenfell-investigators-to-lie-about-the-cause-of-the-fire-so-she-wouldnt-look-bad/