Prime Minister should not have power to appoint top mandarins

28 February 2014

A report from the Commons Public Administration Committee (PASC) says the Prime Minister’s role in appointing the most senior civil servants should not be expanded to the ability to choose between two possible candidates, until a Parliamentary Commission on the Civil Service has considered the matter

At present the Prime Minister can only veto a candidate selected on merit. But new proposals put forward by the Civil Service Commission would give the Prime Minister the power to choose between two candidates considered equally well qualified for the role.

The report follows a long-running debate between the Civil Service Commission and the Government on the appointment of lead permanent secretaries—the most senior civil servant in a department. In January 2014 the Civil Service Commission put out to consultation two proposals on expanding ministerial influence on the recruitment process.

PASC has concluded that the first option—to formalise the recruitment panel’s powers to seek, and take into account, the view of the relevant minister during the appointment process—should be adopted. The Committee has warned that the adoption of the Commission’s second option—allowing the Prime Minster or Secretary of State to effectively appoint a permanent secretary by choosing between two candidates “of equivalent merit”—risks the appearance that the choice will be made on grounds other than merit alone.

The First Civil Service Commissioner, Sir David Normington, gave evidence to PASC on 12 February 2014.

Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“PASC shares the view of the Civil Service Commission, that impartial recruitment on merit alone is a fundamental pillar of our system of Government. It may be right to give the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State a choice from a list of differing candidates, but it does risk the final decision being made for other reasons, not on merit, undermining the central core of the Northcote-Trevelyan Civil Service. This needs to be considered by Parliament.  This was not envisaged when Parliament when Parliament passed the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (2010), so this could prove to be a significant constitutional development.

We know that there are voices now arguing for much more political control over civil service appointments.  There needs to be a proper debate about this.  While Sir David Normington insisted in his evidence to us that a “close call between two candidates ... does not happen very often”, the danger is that this proposal would encourage an expectation that the government of the day is entitled to choose its permanent secretaries.

It is however exactly these sort of questions that are behind the growing demand for a Parliamentary Commission into the future of the Civil Service—as recognised by Sir David, who has supported our recommendation for such a Commission. We repeat our recommendation, which has also been supported by the House of Commons Liaison Committee, that this should be established as a matter of urgency.”

Image: iStockphoto

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