Civil service changes must not undermine impartiality, warn Lords

20 November 2012


The Government’s plans for reforming the civil service must not undermine its impartiality, says the House of Lords Constitution Committee in its new report, The Accountability of Civil Servants, published today.

The Committee is concerned that proposals in the Governments Civil Service Reform Plan, such as allowing ministers to select departmental permanent secretaries from a shortlist and directly to appoint civil servants on fixed-term contracts, could risk undermining the impartiality of the civil service, threaten the principle that appointments are based on merit and make it harder for officials to give honest advice to ministers.

The Committee concludes that ministers remain constitutionally responsible for everything their departments and their civil servants do. Ministers should not seek to distance themselves from the actions of civil servants, or of special advisers.

Commenting, Baroness Jay of Paddington, chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:

“One of the strengths of the UK civil service is its ability to serve governments of different political complexions with equal commitment. The Government must ensure that their reforms do not undermine those strengths or threaten the impartiality of the civil service. Permanent secretaries must continue to be appointed on merit and through fair and open competition, regardless of any changes to the appointment process.

“The Committee is concerned that the plan to allow ministers to make direct, fixed-term civil service appointments would limit the ability of civil servants to speak candidly to ministers. Unless safeguards are put in place it risks being used to increase the political element of the civil service through the back door, and may lead to cronyism.

“Recent developments show the importance of ministers coming to Parliament to account for all of their departmental business. The Committee concludes that this constitutional principle is essential for enabling Parliament to perform its role of holding the Government to account.”     

The Committee also address the relationship between parliamentary select committees and the civil service. The report concludes that select committees should have greater access to advice given to ministers by civil servants and that select committees should be able to call former civil servants to give evidence on projects which they used to work on.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Parliament should in future be given the chance to scrutinise revised editions of the Osmotherly rules, which provide guidance to civil servants on dealing with select committees; 
  • the Osmotherly rules, however, should not be regarded as anything more than guidance for civil servants. Parliamentary committees must decide for themselves how to scrutinise Government and who to call to give evidence;
  • when select committees call for specific civil servants to give evidence the Government should normally agree to the request; and
  • it should be normal practice for a single senior civil servant to oversee major Government projects from start to finish, in order to ensure better accountability of such projects.

The report, The Accountability of Civil Servants, is on the Committee’s webpage.

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