Of all the sackings in September’s reshuffle, two of the most surprising came from the Education department. So it was fascinating to hear those two victims of the purge, Tim Loughton and Nick Gibb, give their verdict on the department and their boss at the Education Select Committee this morning. Lib Dem Sarah Teather, who departed to fight to retain her constituency, also had her say, but the most striking comments came from Loughton.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Loughton was not happy to have lost his job. He apparently stayed silent for almost the entire duration of his reshuffle meeting with the Prime Minister, and has become a vocal backbencher since returning from his departmental office. So his contributions could, to a certain extent, have been coloured by his dismay at being asked to leave a position he was enjoying, and where he was popular.
Nonetheless, the former children’s minister made a clear and deliberate attack on the priorities of the department, arguing to the committee that his brief ‘was a declining priority within the department’ and that ‘the children and families agenda has been greatly downgraded since the reshuffle’, adding that while he understood the need for Michael Gove to focus on radical schools reform, ‘my fear is it needn’t have been mutually exclusive and there has been some neglect with children and families’. The new minister responsible for this area had a huge portfolio and a declining number of officials to help him, Loughton claimed.
The government’s adoption adviser Sir Martin Narey has since argued that Gove was ‘committed to adoption and care reforms’ and that it was a ‘No 10 top priority’.
The Education department is often lauded as an example of efficient and effective leadership, but Loughton wasn’t quite so glowing in his assessment of the way the ministerial team functioned. He argued that a ministerial meeting scheduled regularly for lunchtimes was ‘frequently cancelled’, and that when meetings did take place, there was a paucity of strategic discussion:
‘This was one of my big bugbears. The last time ministers met together without civil servants as far as I can remember… was Christmas dinner at the Secretary of State’s house last year and it was a real weakness. We had a supposedly a ministerial meeting every monday lunchtime supposedly for an hour, frequently cancelled.
‘Rarely did children, we had the opportunity for children and families matters to come on the agenda. It was a cast of… including special advisers, some of whom I never knew who they were anyway, and much of it was soliloquy.
‘That was not an opportunity for a strategic discussion of what the department’s priorities should be, of how they should be handling the agenda, and how the department should be integrated, and it was a real weakness, and despite the constant by several of us that actually ministers just need to sit down, with a cup of coffee, whatever it might be and toss some ideas around as to a strategic overview.’
He said this led to a ‘feeling of frustration’ of certain ministers and their officials. On further questioning about these soliloquies, Loughton said:
‘Well, the Secretary of State is very good at soliloquies. He’s very good at entertaining…’
But Teather argued in her evidence that she had enjoyed good access to Gove, and that in her experience, all meetings suffered from soliloquies.
There weren’t just problems with the way the ministerial team organised itself, though. Loughton also attacked the way officials tried to be as evasive as possible when compiling written answers, and also claimed that some of his civil servants working on social services ‘had never met a social worker before’ he took them out on visits to councils. This is just another sack of fuel for the ongoing row about how effective the civil service is.