Press Notice 22, Session 2006-07

26 March 2007


In a report published today, Monday 26 March 2007, the Public Administration Select Committee says it is time there was a clearer idea of what ministerial or civil service accountability means.

"There have long been concerns about the way in which responsibility and

accountability are divided in the British system. Those difficulties have become more acute."

A series of political and administrative failures - at Defra, the Department for Health and the Home Office - have brought this issue into the public eye.

"It is clear that if the first task of the civil service is to implement government policy, it has had some spectacular failures. The first seven Capability Reviews have also shown significant weaknesses in departmental management. The current Home Secretary famously declared his own department's systems "not fit for purpose". Former senior officials have responded with robust criticisms of ministers."

It is no longer adequate to say Ministers are responsible for all delivery failures, but equally, civil servants should not be made scapegoats when failures are not their fault

The Committee calls for a "new public service bargain", underpinned by a good governance code, for ministers and civil servants. The Committee considers that there can be no easy division between "policy" and "operational" responsibility, and that ministers have a legitimate interest in the way in which the civil service operates. Nonetheless, there should be more clarity about who is responsible for what.

The Home Office's new compact offers a potential first step to a clear understanding of the new bargain. Ministers should be able to have confidence that the civil service is responsive to their needs, and deals with poor performance properly. Civil servants should be confident that they have the right to give advice without adverse consequences, however unwelcome that advice might be, and to be judged only matters for which they are responsible.

In the course of the inquiry the Committee heard evidence from those who advocated more ministerial control over appointments, and from those who wished to reduce ministerial influence still further. The Committee notes that, in international terms, ministers in the United Kingdom have very little control over civil service appointments. It considers that the civil service should remain impartial, and that ministers should not exercise patronage. It supports the principle of appointment on merit to public bodies. Nonetheless the Committee questions whether current arrangements take adequate account of ministers' need to have confidence in those who serve them, and of the principle of ultimate ministerial accountability. It believes there is a case for more involvement of ministers in civil service appointments, and in the appointment of quango heads.

If it is accepted that ministers' legitimate interests should be recognised, it is important that this is balanced by enshrining the civil service's institutional independence in statute. The Government's consultation on a draft Civil Service Bill closed over two years ago. Its own guidelines state that a summary of responses and ensuing policy changes should be published within three months. The Committee notes that "by any reckoning, the summary of responses should have been published a long time ago", and recommends that the Government publishes the summary alongside its response to this report, within two months, with an explanation for the delay.

Tony Wright MP, Chairman of the Committee said,

"Recent concerns that the civil service is being "politicised" miss the point. However, it is clear that the relationship between ministers and civil servants needs more clarity. That is why we think a good governance code would help. Nor should we allow the knee-jerk charge of politicisation to prevent us reviewing the role of ministers in civil service appointments and in the appointment of those charged with running key public bodies. We should also have the confidence to introduce a Civil Service Bill to enshrine the fundamental constitutional relationships."

For more information about the work of the Committee, visit our website at

The Committee was nominated on 13 July 2005. Its terms of reference are to examine the reports of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsmen, and to consider matters relating to the quality and standards of administration provided by Civil Service departments, and other matters relating to the Civil Service. The Membership of the Committee is as follows:
Tony Wright (Chairman) (Lab) (Cannock Chase), Mr David Burrowes (Con) (Enfield, Southgate), Paul Flynn (Lab) (Newport West), David Heyes (Lab) (Ashton under Lyne), Kelvin Hopkins (Lab) (Luton North), Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) (Bridgewater), Julie Morgan (Lab) (Cardiff North), Mr Gordon Prentice (Lab) (Pendle), Paul Rowen (Lib Dem) (Rochdale), Mr Charles Walker (Con) (Broxbourne), Jenny Willott (Lib Dem) (Cardiff Central)

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