By Joshua.Chambers

18 Nov 2013

The civil service must both loyally serve the government of the day, and be ready for an incoming government. Joshua Chambers considers the case for reforming the rules governing civil servants’ links with the Opposition

Civil servants must enjoy a strong – if celibate – marriage with their ministers, but that doesn’t always mean giving the cold shoulder to opposition politicians who’d love to settle down with them in Whitehall.

Early next year, civil service leaders will begin one of the most sensitive elements of the political cycle: engaging with the opposition as it makes its own plans for government. They continue to serve the existing government, though, so “there is bound to be an element of subterfuge and secrecy” in the process, according to the Institute for Government (IfG).

Contact traditionally starts 15 months before an election, making February an auspicious month. It’s been a feature of the political calendar since the mid-’60s, but new pressures mean that it requires fresh consideration.

Three issues are particularly pertinent. First is the timescale, which prominent figures would like to see reconsidered and formalised. Second is the level of support provided to the opposition: earlier this year, Labour called for civil servants in the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) to publicly cost its manifesto – requiring a change in its mandate. And third, the existence of a coalition government complicates how civil servants work for the two governing parties as they prepare to campaign against one another.

CSW has spoken to two former cabinet secretaries who oversaw transitions of government, plus two constitutional experts, to understand this process and see how it can be updated to work in 2015.

The process currently follows what are known as the ‘Douglas-Home Rules’. A precedent was set in 1964, during the premiership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home: Harold Wilson’s opposition planned to split the Treasury and create a Department of Economic Affairs, and wanted to inform the civil service of its plan.

At the 1970 election, the roles were reversed, and Heath reminded prime minister Wilson of the access the latter had been given in opposition. Dr Catherine Haddon, co-author of an influential IfG report on the subject, explains that Wilson was reluctant to provide access, so Heath called him out in the press. “It became a political football for parties to use,” she says – though the process has since become less public.

Before the last election, former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell set out formal guidelines for pre-election contacts. These were included in the 2010 Cabinet Manual, but many of the details have been left deliberately vague. “At an appropriate time towards the end of any Parliament, as the next general election approaches, the prime minister writes to the leaders of the main opposition parties to authorise pre-election contacts with the civil service. The meetings take place on a confidential basis,” it says.

Contact traditionally occurred around six months before an election until 1992, when cabinet secretary Lord Butler suggested that the timescale should be extended to 15 months. “Prime ministers very often used to call an election after four years, so unless you did it 15 months before the [possible] last date for an election, then it might not happen at all,” he tells CSW. This would have left an incoming government without an understanding of how Whitehall operates, and the civil service lacking a detailed picture of opposition plans.

In 2011, the coalition passed the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, setting out the precise length of a term. Butler now believes that six months is sufficient to “enable you to have a decent dialogue and get some work done.” That gives enough time for civil servants to discuss ideas with the opposition before the start of an election campaign, he says, enabling shadow ministers to test their plans before putting them into a manifesto.

Butler’s suggestion that civil servants should comment on the “practicality” of party manifestos is an expansion of what’s allowed by the Cabinet Manual, which confines civil servants to what O’Donnell once called “listening mode”. It says: “Senior civil servants may ask questions about the implications of opposition parties’ policy statements, although they would not normally comment on or give advice about policies.”

Butler says that he followed this convention, but believes that further contact and discussion would help new governments to hit the ground running. He references devolution, when the Labour government wanted to introduce the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly very quickly. “We hadn’t had any contact with the opposition about the mechanics of that before the election,” he says, arguing that “the shackles should be loosened” so that civil servants are able to give advice and guidance. The limit of this would be that they “shouldn’t appear at any public political meetings, and their advice should not extend to providing opposition parties with arguments they can use against the government,” he says.

The convention is that, once granted the approval of the PM and their secretary of state, permanent secretaries may meet with shadow ministers. But Butler would like to see Opposition figures given access to a wider range of officials. And Whitehall historian Lord Hennessy suggests that teams of civil servants in departments could be tasked with understanding opposition policies and preparing for any transition.

Arm’s-length bodies, meanwhile, are a more complicated matter: they aren’t governed by the original convention, and contact remains a grey area. The IfG therefore wants more formal guidelines. It also argues that the decision to provide support should be made by the cabinet secretary, rather than the prime minister – though both Butler and O’Donnell tell CSW that they’d rather this power lie in the hands of someone who’s democratically elected.

The current prime minister will have to decide whether to agree to the request of shadow chancellor Ed Balls that the OBR publicly audit his manifesto spending commitments. The head of the OBR, Robert Chote, has welcomed this suggestion.

Butler explains that “in the old days, the government used to ask the civil service to cost opposition policies, and they did this with the aim of showing how expensive they were going to be.” While this was controversial, “I always took the view that it couldn’t be refused because if the government just asked as a matter of fact how much a particular policy was going to cost, that was a factual question which they were entitled to ask.” He backs the suggestion that this work move to the independent OBR, because “it is good for the electorate and takes it out of party politics.” O’Donnell also agrees with the proposal (news).

Traditionally, there has been one party in government and one in opposition. The existence of a coalition greatly complicates current arrangements. The government is constitutionally entitled to ask factual questions and receive policy advice. However, there are now two parties in government, who would potentially be receiving separate advice.

The situation is unprecedented, Hennessy says. At the end of the Second World War – when we had our last coalition government – Atlee’s Labour Party left a few months in advance to prepare its manifesto, Haddon adds.

This time around, the Liberal Democrats show no indications that they’re going to leave. O’Donnell says that “my successor will have to come to a way of sorting out what to do if one of the two parties wants advice which isn’t going to be copied to the other one.” He suggests that there would have to be cross-party talks to get an agreement between the parties. “The governing parties would want to get the same, and Labour may realise that it may well be in a coalition in the future,” he adds, so all sides will want to ensure a fair deal.

Butler says the fact that two parties will be supported strengthens the argument for more contact with the opposition – discretely, of course: “The parties shouldn’t break the confidentiality of the discussions by claiming that their plans had been cleared by the civil service.”

Senior civil servants will have to consider carefully how they update the rules on contact with oppositions. Any reform will require caution, and great tact with the serving government: ministers will always view such contacts as verging on the adulterous. But the nature of British democracy is such that that the governing parties do periodically rotate. By ensuring that blossoming relationships are handled openly and maturely, civil servants and the governing parties will ensure that, when they once again find themselves on opposite sides of the fence, it will be easier to rekindle their marriage.

Correction: This piece originally incorrectly referenced Haddon saying that Attlee's Labour Party separated from the National Government a year before the election. This is not correct, Haddon said it left the coalition early, but the gap was only a few months.

Read the most recent articles written by Joshua.Chambers - Interview: Alison Munro


Share this page
Partner content