A stronger civil service head and more ministerial appointments: Maude shares highlights of his review

Francis Maude says his civil service governance review will also recommend splitting the Treasury
Maude at this week's Reform event

The erstwhile and returning reformer Francis Maude began a panel event this week by saying that nothing in his hotly anticipated upcoming review on civil service reform will be new.

“They are all things which have been recommended, maybe in different places, different times,” he said.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Reform think tank about his civil service governance review, which began last year, Lord Maude gave several hints about the recommendations it contains. 

He made two more overarching revelations: that all of his recommendations could be implemented without any primary legislation, as “none of it challenges established constitutional norms”; and that they would not threaten the model of a permanent, impartial civil service.

While there is no guarantee that the government – or a new incoming administration following the next general election – will implement his reforms, Maude set out what some of the changes would look like if it does.

The head of the civil service would become a separate, strengthened role

Maude said he wants the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service roles to be split, and the top civil servant to have greater authority – following the “extraordinary finding” that running the civil service is not formally delegated to its head.

“The head of the civil service is theoretically a line manager, but without any authority. And that's the problem,” he said.

He said that the last time the role was split out from the cabinet secretary job – when Bob Kerslake was made head of the civil service in 2012 – “there was no delegation of power”, which undermined the role.

“The power of the civil service to get changed is, as one of them said, through cajolery, persuasion, charm… But behind that, there has to be authority,” he said.

“There's currently no mandate, and no actual authority. That was the problem and I didn't realise that.”

The Treasury would be split

Maude said the UK is “out of kilter” with comparable systems that have an impartial civil service – New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland – none of which have an equivalent department to the Treasury. Each has one that is “effectively a budget ministry”, he said.

The peer said the UK should take a similar approach, with the head of the civil service overseeing a new budget ministry, which would allocate money to government departments.

The Treasury would meanwhile retain responsibility for overall fiscal policy and tax. “There is a big advantage in bringing together the allocation of public expenditure, together with its oversight is effective oversight, through the horizontal functions, which should be strongly led from the centre”.

Ministers will have more say over appointments…

Maude revealed that some of his recommendations, if implemented, “would increase the ability of ministers to meet or influence appointments”.

He acknowledged that the change would be "controversial and difficult".

“Frankly, if I were, if I were the government… I would hesitate about implementing reforms I’m recommending on the appointment of civil servants because there’s lots of controversy attached to it," he said.

…but that will come with more scrutiny

However, Maude said his recommendations will “strengthen the ability of civil service to be properly strong, impartial, able to serve an incoming government as well as the current government”.

Giving ministers more say over appointments would be “strongly balanced by much more external scrutiny than currently exists”, he added.

Maude said that he had discovered while carrying out his review that “almost uniquely among institutions of the state, there is no organised external scrutiny of the civil service”. While the Civil Service Commission has some functions in this area, he said it was limited to “guarding the perimeter” or overseeing external recruitment into the upper echelons of the civil service.

So the Civil Service Commission will be ‘enhanced’

One proposed solution for increasing accountability for appointments is by creating a statutory Civil Service Board. Maude said this would not be the right approach “for two reasons: one is primary legislation, that means long grass beckons; and the second is that it kind of builds in conflict”.

Instead, he said the best route to go down would be to strengthen the Civil Service Commission. The commission would then hold the head of the civil service to account – and in doing so, would ensure there is “no politics in this whatsoever”. “This is all about effectiveness. It's not about policy direction, there's no ideology,” he said.

Maude added that “strengthened scrutiny, or external scrutiny by something like an enhanced, empowered Civil Service Commission, would enable us to avoid something that looks and feels and behaves like a politicised civil service and enable it to become more responsive.”

There will be no barriers to civil servants with political backgrounds

Continuing his thoughts on civil service politicisation, Maude said: “We should be less prissy about political backgrounds and be much more focused on: What do they actually do? What’s the behaviour?”

Maude told the event he is “utterly indifferent” to officials’ political background and that there is “no reason why people with a political background shouldn't become civil servants”.

Reflecting on his time in cabinet, Maude said: “Some of the best civil servants I had working for me, I suspected, would never get even close to voting Conservative. And it didn't bother me in the slightest.”

He singled out Sue Gray – the former permanent secretary who led the Partygate investigation – for praise. When Gray was recruited by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, a number of her critics accused her of having been politically motivated in her Partygate probe.  But Maude said that when he was at the Cabinet Office with Gray, where she was head of Propriety and Ethics, she was "a brilliant and impeccably impartial civil servant".

“So political leanings are irrelevant; it’s behaviour that matters,” he added.

The changes could happen under Labour

While the review was commissioned by former Conservative PM Boris Johnson, Maude said it is "addressed to all who have an interest in the governance of the country".

And he indicated he is open to talking to Labour about his findings "at the appropriate time."

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