Who briefs Government Ministers, especially senior Ministers?
A number of years ago I got a phone call telling me that the Secretary of State for Education wanted to visit one of my units for students with severe learning difficulties. Two days notice was given, which meant that all the students whose drug dosages had been messed up by the doctors could be kept out of sight. On the Thursday morning the ministerial car arrived and out stepped Sir Keith Joseph and Edwina Currie. I remember Sir Keith as being a charming, rather diffident man, and Edwina Currie rather differently. Sir Keith was also noted for eccentricity (it was rumoured that he suffered from Asberger’s syndrome) so it was likely to be a jolly day.
The first class we visited was the cookery class. The students were making bread. Bread making is always a safe option on official visits as the students can bang away with the dough. Sir Keith silently observed them for a few minutes and then turned to me and said ‘Tell me Mr Green, are they incontinent?’ to which my reply was ‘Not that I am aware of, Sir Keith’.
The next class was music. The students hardly noticed us as they were banging away on tambourines, and triangles and xylophones and clashing cymbals. The noise was deafening, but it didn’t trouble Sir Keith who asked me ‘Are they incontinent, Mr Green?’ and I replied ‘Not that I am aware of, Sir Keith’.
Next was Art and Craft. Plenty of paint and clay. Before the Secretary of State could utter I said ‘They’re not incontinent, Sir Keith’, and his reply was ‘Good, good’.
Next, physical activities, with plenty of arm and leg stretching, and hand clapping. I counted down – three, two, one ‘No, Sir Keith’. ‘Ah’ he said.
I had been walking round with the Head of Centre, and I handed him over to her entirely, as I could not bear the thought of showing him swimming exercises in the Exercise Pool. I joined the Deputy Head and Edwina Currie who were in the cookery class, where dough pounding was still going on with much gusto. ‘Good morning’ said the Minister of State for Health, and turning to one of the students who was Downs Syndrome ‘And what is your name?’ With difficulty he said ‘Peter’. ‘Hello, Peter’ said the Minister of State for Health. ‘What is your name?’ asked Peter. ‘My name’ said the Minister of State for Health ‘is Mrs Currie’. ‘You fucker’ I said, loud enough for the Deputy Head to hear, but not the Minister of State for Health, and I walked off and spent more time with the students, who were a great lot.
So departed Sir Keith, the Cabinet Member who wanted to close Liverpool down after the Toxteth riots, and whose misunderstood economic views are with us to this day, and Mrs Currie, the Minister of State for Health, who was to the egg industry what bombs had been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few days after they left I received a phone call from a very senior civil servant; the Minister of State for Health, had it seems, left her gloves at the unit. Was it possible for them to be found? I rang the unit: fortunately I remembered the gloves, black leather with a split finger. I instructed that, should they be found, they were to be thrown into the waste bin.