Impartial terms

Philip Hunt

Phil Hunt on the government’s bullying approach to civil service neutrality

The British Civil Service has an enviable record globally for incorruptibility, political neutrality and administrative excellence. My ten years experience as a Minister would testify to that. I was struck by the commitment and integrity of so many of the officials I worked with who had also happily served the previous Conservative government. 

Of course, not all was perfect. Project management and contract negotiations are not the strong points of most civil servants. And the wheels of some departments can grind frustratingly slow. But this is eminently reformable. 

Unfortunately, there will be precious little left to reform if the very core of the Civil Service’s political neutrality is at peril. This is a very real danger if Ministers gets their way which is why I am raising the issue in the Lords today.

The government seem determined to let Secretaries of State choose their own Permanent Secretary despite the opposition of the Civil Service Commission, which ensures that appointments are made on merit. As the Commission says, appointing a new permanent secretary is not a personal one. In a politically impartial civil service, these individuals may have to serve successive Secretaries of State, with different political philosophies. That is why the final decision on who is the best candidate is made by the selection panel, not the Minister.

Lamentably, the government seem intent on bullying the Commission in threatening to change the law to make it happen. David Cameron’s apparent veto of the appointment of climate change committee Chief Executive, David Kennedy as permanent secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change is an ominous sign of things to come. 

There is already considerable turbulence in the Civil Service. Since the 2010 election, 18 out of 20 departments have experienced at least one change of permanent secretary, with some moving elsewhere in Whitehall and others leaving altogether. As the Institute for Government have pointed out, at a time when departments are going through the most far-reaching reforms in a generation, the breadth and frequency of the changes provokes questions about how stable leadership is at the top of government. 

The Cabinet Office’s proposals on mandarin appointments would severely undermine the impartiality of the civil service, lower morale even further and off-load blame onto officials for the mistakes of Ministers.

All non-political appointments to the Civil Service are subject to a legal requirement for selection on merit. While Ministers should have an influence on appointing those with whom they work closely, this is best achieved by independent panels – drawing on a wide range of evidence, with no single individual having overall control over the decision-making process. Continuing this is the way to safeguard neutrality. 

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 13th December 2012


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