Docker's son to mandarin

Nicholas Pyke

After a career charting the troubled waters of local government, Michael Bichard is used to more than a degree of uncertainty. But John Major's decision to scuttle the Employment Department has tested his versatility. He had held the post of permanent secretary there for only two months when the news broke that his empire would merge with Education. It came as a great surprise.

So, far from the stately supervision of government process that he might have expected, Mr Bichard finds himself jointly in charge of the reorganisation of a department in which staff are reapplying for their old jobs and where detailed aims and policies are as yet blank pieces of paper.

But then, as he told the MPs, "when you've been the chief executive of Brent, you get used to living from week to week."

Even this new job is far from secure. He is currently the joint permanent secretary in the Department for Education and Employment, along with the Education man, Sir Tim Lankester - a situation which, he acknowledges, will not last for long.

The smart money, as it happens, is on Mr Bichard keeping the job, although Sir Tim, said to be destined for greatness under a Labour government, is unlikely to suffer much reversal of fortune.

Mr Bichard is quite a phenomenon. When he was appointed to replace Sir Nicholas Monck as permanent secretary - effectively chief civil servant - at Employment he was the first to be drawn from outside the orthodox civil service, and the first to be selected through open competition.

At 48 he was also the youngest permanent secretary, and the only one with a background in local government.

He was the chief executive at Brent between 1980 and 1986, a difficult authority whose reputation for "loony left" shenanigans grew as the decade progressed.

He moved on to Gloucestershire where he was felt to be an efficient, hard-headed administrator with a studied impartiality that sometimes made him seem cold.

Colleagues at Gloucestershire say he was very much a new broom, turning the council, which had been dominated by the big-spending central departments, into one more concerned with efficiency and results.

He insisted that the departmental heads sank their differences and worked as one team. Observers of the erstwhile Education department are, then, following his progress with great interest.

He is not the standard mandarin. While his predecessor at Employment arrived via Eton and Cambridge, Mr Bichard is a docker's son from Southampton with a Manchester University law degree.

Although evidently able, he does not cultivate the suave urbanity associated with the civil service fast stream. Nor is there a trace of superciliousness. Recent sightings mark him down instead as straight talking, amicable and, at six foot two, comfortably inelegant.

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