Normington: no further appointment reforms without legislation

Ministers do not have the power to pick their preferred permanent secretary from a shortlist, first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington said last week, and any further reforms to the system of permanent secretary appointments would require legislation. Meanwhile the head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, has told CSW that the government currently has no plans to legislate.

By Joshua.Chambers

07 Feb 2013

Maude has said he wants to give secretaries of state a greater say in permanent secretary appointments, with the ability to choose from a shortlist drawn up in a process overseen by the civil service commissioners. However, Normington's commission has ruled that while ministers may play a greater role – interviewing candidates, for example, and providing feedback to selection panels – they should be presented with a single preferred candidate.

Normington said at the Institute for Government last week that the commission’s powers are enshrined in statue, and Maude cannot overrule its opinion without legislation to change the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. “What is enshrined in legislation is recruitment on merit through fair and open competition and a requirement that the Civil Service Commission defines what that means, and there’s no override on that,” he said.

“We were put here to uphold the principle of an impartial civil service, appointed on merit, and to act as an explicit check on the power of the executive to make a civil service appointment,” Normington added. “I don’t believe, therefore, it’s in our gift to sign that principle away with the stroke of a pen, even if we wanted to do so. The right place to do that, if it is done at all, is in Parliament through legislation. I hope it doesn’t come to that.” The civil service commissioner gave his opinion after Maude had suggested that further reforms could be made without the need for legislative change, and Normington's comments narrow the minister's options.

The Cabinet Office appears to have accepted Normington's position, with Kerslake signalling that Maude will wait to see how the civil service commissioners' own reforms operate before making a decision on whether to legislate. “There’s a shared view about the importance of civil service values, the value of an impartial civil service, and I don’t believe there’s any intention to move towards legislation [at] this time,” Kerslake said. “We have an agreed way forward on the appointment of permanent secretaries from the [Civil Service] Commission.”

Normington later told CSW that “in our view, this is the wrong debate at the wrong time... The emphasis must be on improving the skills, experience and competence of those who are already civil servants and those we are seeking to attract and recruit.”

Note: this story has been amended to make clear that further non-legislative reforms have been blocked by the civil service commissioners, not the head of the civil service.

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