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Civil servants ‘must retain impartiality’

Government plans for civil service reform must not undermine impartiality, a new report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee warns.

The Accountability of Civil Servants’ was published yesterday and calls for ministers to remain constitutionally responsible for everything done in their departments.

The Cabinet Office’s Civil Service Reform Plan includes proposals such as allowing ministers to select department permanent secretaries from a shortlist and to directly appoint civil servants on fixed-term contracts, which could threaten the principle of appointments made on merit and make it more difficult for officials to give ministers honest advice.

The Committee’s report states that ministers should not seek to distance themselves from the action of civil servants or of special advisers. It recommends that select committees should have greater access to advice that civil servants give to ministers and when select committees call for specific civil servants to give evidence the Government should normally agree to the request.

Additionally, it should be normal practice for a single senior civil servant to oversee major Government projects from start to finish, to ensure better accountability of such projects.

Baroness Jay of Paddington, who chairs the 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 report is available at:

(Image copyright Benjamin Nolan used here under a Creative Commons licence, some rights reserved.)

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