19 June 2008
The former mayor of London has launched a scathing attack on Britain's civil service, accusing mandarins of being 'opposed to doing anything'.
In his first speech after losing the May 1 election to Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone said that it was no longer possible for the government to run Britain with the current civil service structure.
'I expect I met a government minister once a week for eight years: an endless round of persuasion, persuasion — and no sooner had you persuaded them, then there would be a reshuffle and you'd have to start all over again,' he told the conference.
'What did come across to me very strongly in all of this is that you could persuade ministers but civil servants were very hostile.'
Livingstone called for an overhaul of the political neutrality governing the civil service, and for Cabinet ministers to be made the executive heads of their departments, with the power to hire and fire.
He said that at every stage civil servants were opposed to doing anything, afraid of costs and of other things going wrong.
Livingstone also said central government was unable to run services directly and should devolve far greater responsibility to a local level.
'I'm not suggesting you devolve the armed forces down to county councils,' he said. 'But it does mean government should be restricted only to what it can sensibly provide and everything else should be devolved down.'
Despite acknowledging that current political leaders were unlikely to contemplate such systemic change, he said there should be a cranking up of demand across local government for 'real financial independence'.
Livingstone said his experience as mayor in the capital had won him over to the idea of having an elected leader with executive power. He credited the arrangement with being responsive and able to change things rapidly, having originally considered the idea to be 'barmy'.