Lords debates Constitution Committee report on civil service accountability

08 February 2013

Members of the House of Lords debated the Constitution Committee report on the accountability of civil servants yesterday (Thursday 7 February)

Baroness Jay of Paddington (Labour), chairperson of the Lords Constitution Committee, opened the debate, saying: ‘I should first make clear that this was not a general inquiry into the present state of the Civil Service. Our focus was specifically on accountability. We wanted to examine how well civil servants who play very significant permanent roles in our system of government are held to account. ‘

She went on to speak about the civil service reform plan, saying the ‘...plan indicated the government's broad intention to strengthen ministers' roles in the recruitment process for permanent secretaries. It did not specify how, but said that the government would consult with the Civil Service Commission. However, since then, both the prime minister and the minister for the Cabinet Office, Mr Maude, have made it clear that they prefer ministers to be given the power to select from a shortlist of names when recruiting a new permanent secretary.’

She continued: ‘The Constitution Committee's report underlines the pre-eminence of ministerial accountability to Parliament and civil servants' accountability to ministers. We make clear that any plans to reform the civil service must not undermine the accepted principles of accountability or civil service impartiality. The report also concludes that parliamentary select committees should have greater access to individual civil servants and that the informal rules governing their appearances before committees should be revised and scrutinised by Parliament.’

Lord Lexden (Conservative), spoke about the government’s response to the report, saying: ‘One of the most telling features of the response is that it deals at length with only one element of the report: namely, the appointment of permanent secretaries... No previous government have sought to exert such firm control over the processes by which permanent secretaries are appointed, and I share the fears expressed many times during this debate that the government's proposals create dangers for the great principles of impartiality, merit and competition on which appointment has always rested, hinting at the patronage from which the civil service escaped as a result of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms.’

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat) responded on behalf of the government, saying: ‘The sharpness of financial constraints under which the government are now operating, and they exist not just in the United Kingdom, pose real challenges for all departments of government. Major shifts in skills are needed. Permanent under secretaries two or three generations ago did not think that they needed strong managerial skills. It is clear that in what we now call "the delivery department" managerial skills are extremely important. Management of major projects, which the civil service reform plan is much concerned with, requires skills which are not always easily available within the civil service.’

He continued: ‘I regret that on Action 11 of the civil service reform plan we have had such a battle in the press about one of the less fundamental issues in civil service reform... There has to be a relationship between the secretary of state and the permanent secretary which is one of trust and it depends on both of them maintaining that level of trust... We are committed to the future of a politically impartial and independent civil service and intend to maintain the principles of Northcote-Trevelyan, although necessarily and unavoidably adapted to the present day.’

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

More news on: Parliament, government and politics, Central government, Parliament, House of Lords news, Lords news, Bill news, Civil Service

Share this page