We need a constitutional reset but a pick 'n' mix of ideas is not the answer

With a cast of heavy-hitters, the UK Governance Project has some good ideas, says Dave Penman, but forget a Royal Commission: ministers need practical suggestions if we are to make real change
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By Dave Penman

12 Feb 2024

I like to think that over the last few years the FDA has got quite good at maximising our media coverage. I mean, let’s face it, we’ve not been short of a story or two about the civil service, so we’ve got the stripes as they say.

I feel the UK Governance Project – yes I know you probably haven't heard of it, that’s kinda my point – could have done with a bit of advice on how to splash a story. Their weighty report from a group of eminent experts even stars a few A-listers who’ve made their own splashes over the last couple of years. Helen McNamara, Jonathan Jones and Dame Margaret Hodge no less. Throw in Dominic Grieve and you should have an Ocean’s Eleven for constitutional reform but, somehow, it feels more like Ocean’s Thirteen with the promo budget cut due to cost overruns.

Anyway, on to the substance. I give it three stars. Good cast,  interesting in parts, could and should have been better, went for the tired old plot device of a Royal Commission on the civil service. For me, that’s the constitutional equivalent of Season 9 of Dallas and the Bobby Ewing/Pam dream plot. I had to check the cast list again to make sure Bernard Jenkin wasn’t on it. 80s pop culture and a PACAC burn from 2013, you only get that in one place and its right here readers.

The entire report is a smorgasbord of reform across parliament, government , the ministerial code, and the civil service. It’s clearly a response to the end of the ‘good chap’ era and so tries to bring more detail and rigour to areas of governance that were either undefined or lacked meaningful oversight.

On the ministerial code, they’ve been quite conservative, retreading the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendations of putting it on a statutory footing, giving the Independent Adviser (or Commissioner as they’d prefer) the ability to conduct investigations. Also, no one seems to pick up how we deal with Ministerial Code violations by the prime minister themself.

Surprisingly, given recent experience, there’s no mention of bullying and harassment by ministers. As the civil service and indeed parliament have recognised, dealing with bullying and harassment is very different from dealing with other matters of misconduct. It requires entirely separate processes and needs to be dealt with by someone experienced in that field (unlikely to be the Independent Adviser/Commissioner or indeed a KC if recent experience is to tell us anything).

There’s a number of good ideas on defining the obligations under the ministerial code in more detail – not a bad idea given how that lack of definition has been exploited of late. I’m not sure swearing an oath will make any difference though, and seems a bit of a throwback to the ‘good chap’ culture. Do we really think any of the questionable actions of ministers and indeed prime ministers of late would not have occurred if they’d had to raise their right hand upon entering office?

The report also tries to get under the skin of the relationship between the civil service and ministers. It’s easy to see what they’re trying to resolve. Ministers are playing fast and loose with the truth and there’s a mismatch between resources and commitments. They seek to beef up the role of the permanent secretary, who will be accountable to parliament for not only for the operation of their department but for the accuracy of communications issued. Hmm… I wonder what they could be thinking of? Also ending five-year contracts for permanent secretaries (which are not actually contracts but appointments), presumably to make it more difficult to remove them.

Similarly, there’s recommendations on beefing up of the Civil Service Commission. Greater resources and remit over the civil service code are to be welcomed, but is the role of the Commission really to report annually on the “overall state of the civil service and any recommendations for its improvement”? I’m not trying to be picky here, but as with the idea of a Royal Commission, it feels like they’re throwing external oversight at the civil service and hoping some of it sticks.

In some ways I can understand the temptation to recommend a Royal Commission. They pose a number of significant constitutional questions for it to answer like “examining the model of an impartial anonymous and permanent civil service and recommending whether this is the best (or only) model to serve modern government”. That’s a biggie upfront, but also goes on to explore the transparency of advice to ministers and to what extent the civil service can act as an arbiter on how ministers exercise power (and potentially abuse that). They then move on to less well-established territory for a Royal Commission, including resources, reward and size of the civil service. All important issues, but we’re moving in to territory which is really for the government of the day, and it’s the job of parliament to hold it to account.

Not enough people are thinking about how we are governed and the undefined and ill-defined nature of the many of these issues. We’ve come through a period that’s had not just a coach and horses ridden through the standards of government, but had a prime minister riding white charger at the front carrying a flag with the picture of a raised middle finger whilst blowing a trumpet.

We absolutely need a reset, greater definition, a rebalancing of the power and an effective method for regulating standards. This government has shown no appetite for reform in this area. If Labour do win power they will assume they’ll govern ethically, as every new government does, and whilst they’ve committed to establishing an ethics commission, this will only subsume and beef up existing structures. I already get the sense that its slipping down the call sheet, so there’s no indication they’d be interested in a broader Royal Commission. What we need is practical, quickly implementable solutions. Some tempting grab bags at the cinema checkout, not a huge wall of pick ‘n’ mix before ministers lose interest.

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