Vague on both your houses: How well do civil servants understand parliament?

Written by Sarah Aston on 27 November 2015 in Feature
Feature

Ministers often criticise civil servants for not understanding the workings of Westminster. So what can officials do to ensure that parliament doesn’t leave them baffled? Sarah Aston reports

"I remember one occasion when my civil servants and I were discussing my diary,” former minister Gisela Stuart tells CSW. “I was meant to be summing up a bill debate in parliament, and my diary team said: ‘Well, it’s the closing speech, so you don’t have to be in parliament until 6.30pm. You can do the afternoon appointment in Leeds and come back on the train at 5.30.’

“I remember looking at them and saying: ‘I think you’ll find that the whole point of summing up a debate is that you’re actually in the debate... you can’t just sneak in at the end!” the Labour MP recalls, laughing.

For the onetime junior health minister – who was in office between 1999 and 2001 – this moment cemented her view that, while highly dedicated to their work, some officials have only a limited understanding of the significance of the parliamentary duties their ministers are expected to carry out.

“I don’t know whether this has changed, but during my time I felt that although civil servants understood the politicians as ministers, they didn’t always realise that politicians who are in the government have three mistresses: the constituency, parliament and the department. And, unless you understand all three, you kind of miss it,” she says. 

It’s a common complaint from ministers, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Hannah White. But she believes a lack of parliamentary understanding isn’t always the fault of time-pressed civil servants.

“Officials have a lot of things they need to know about in their day jobs apart from parliament,” says White – who, prior to joining the IfG, spent 10 years as a parliamentary clerk. “Getting an understanding of parliament’s significance is often not a priority for civil servants until their work is subject to parliamentary scrutiny or they are interacting directly with ministers.”

But, says White, officials do often take a different view to their political masters of the importance of parliament – which can give rise to tensions.

“Parliament is often seen as just a hurdle to jump over at the end of the policy process. You develop a policy, you agree it all, you talk to the relevant stakeholders, and then you just have to ‘get it through’. But that doesn’t reflect necessarily the way that ministers see parliament,” White says. 

“Ministers we’ve interviewed get frustrated not only by a lack of technical understanding of parliamentary process, but also when their officials don’t seem to respect the need to spend time in the House negotiating with colleagues and connecting with their party.”

For Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair Bernard Jenkin, a sound knowledge of Westminster is only likely to become more important for civil servants as the parliament unfolds.

“Parliament is becoming much more pro-active and less passive,” he says.

“We’ve got parliament now seeking to set up committees without the permission of government – for instance [former cabinet secretary and now crossbench peer] Robin Butler’s call for a joint committee of both the House of Commons and the Lords on the English Votes for English Laws question before the vote on the matter took place.

“The idea of parliament setting up a select committee other than by government resolution – which outlines a committee’s duties, powers and the procedures for appointing members – would have been unheard of a few years ago, so that is changing the relationship.”

And, according to White, it’s not just more energetic select committees that civil servants will have to consider. 

“Parliament has changed dramatically since the election, with the arrival of a significant SNP contingent, the small majority which the government has in the Commons and the government’s lack of a majority in the House of Lords,” she says. “All those things combined mean the civil service is having to think a bit more about parliament – as the vote on tax credits demonstrated.”


For senior civil servant Joanna Bradshaw, understanding the workings of Westminster has been vital in delivering a complex programme of reforms. 

Having attended a training programme on parliament earlier in her career, Bradshaw – currently director of the Fraud, Error and Debt programme at the Department of Work and Pensions – believes more officials should prioritise an understanding of parliament and the legislative process. 

“Over 90% of all government policy is delivered by major projects, so it’s really important that staff actually understand the whole parliamentary process,” she explains. “If you think about a programme lifecycle, it touches parliament in lots of different stages – the design of the policy, the policy intent, the legislation – so it’s really important that staff understand the cycle.”

In the DWP, Bradshaw says she has seen a real benefit from sending her team on a two-day training course – procured via the Civil Service Learning Gateway and delivered by CSW's sister company Westminster Explained – designed to boost parliamentary knowledge.

“I think there is often a bit of an air of mystery around ministers, especially for junior civil servants who don’t get a lot of face time or contact with them. By doing this training they understand the whole ministerial way of working much better.”

So why aren’t there more civil servants who are well acquainted with parliament? One explanation could be the demise of the National School of Government, which was replaced by Civil Service Learning in 2010. Jenkin says that when the former was closed, "the baby went out with the bathwater".

"The quality of education of civil servants about parliament has definitely declined,” he tells CSW“We had civil servants seconded to the PASC committee staff in the last parliament. They said what an eye-opener it was. They were surprised by how hard MPs worked, about how much commitment every member gave to the committee’s work, and how we each proved so different from one another and from the standard image of an MP.”

For White, while better training on the “technical stuff” is important, there’s a deeper cultural issue at play.

“You can’t just expect civil servants to understand parliament just through training, there needs to be a shift in culture in terms of attitudes towards parliament within the civil service,” she says. 

“With any sort of culture change, the tone from the top is really important, and unless senior civil servants are creating a sense that it’s really important to understand parliament, and how this is going to affect what ministers care about and are trying to achieve, then of course civil servants won’t be motivated to pay attention to it.”

But what does government’s most senior official, Sir Jeremy Heywood, think about these issues? Heywood recently told the IfG’s director Peter Riddell that he was “puzzled” by the perception that civil servants don’t understand parliament. 

“I’m very much part of the Number 10 meeting set-up, and we are constantly hearing from the chief whip, and the leader of the House and the leader of the Lords what the issues of the day, of the week, and so on, are,” he said. 

Heywood added: “A very, very significant part of any permanent secretary’s job, or a senior official’s job, is to help ministers get their bills through parliament. If you don’t have any awareness of that side of job you will not be a successful permanent secretary.”

For Heywood – who did acknowledge that civil servants were a “bit rusty” in their understanding of the Lords (perhaps prescient in light of the government’s defeat over tax credits) – the main challenge was in keeping up to date with a changing legislature. 

“Some of the parliamentary practices do evolve. There used to be a time when you thought you could rely on an amendment being in order or not in order. That [has] become – at least from the point of view of the executive anyway – a slightly more fungible concept these days. So you have to be slightly careful about what can be in scope and what is out of scope. As parliament evolves, the speaker gives different sorts of rulings – we do need to keep up with that.”


At the end of last parliament, PASC recommended that the Cabinet Office introduce a civil service parliamentary scheme to “expose civil servants to politicians as part of their career development”. 

White is also calling for a more active approach to parliament, recommending each department create a parliamentary handling strategy to “to build mutual understanding of parliamentary and departmental priorities”. 

“It’s about being a bit more on the front foot, proactively thinking about big policy things which are coming up, and how they are likely to go down with different groups in parliament, and who they need to tee up early in the policy process with to ensure the process is smooth,” she says. 

One thing is clear, whichever strategy Whitehall adopts: improving civil servants’ understanding of Westminster, and of their ministers’ three competing mistresses – parliament, government and the constituency – will only become more important over the next five years. 

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