Recent perm sec sackings show there aren't sufficient safeguards around the departure of senior officials

Political alignment should never be a factor in deciding on a permanent secretary, argues the chair of the Lords Constitution Committee
Tom Scholar / credit: Parliament TV

Integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality are the core values of the civil service and define its constitutional position in the governance of the UK. In particular, impartiality – the ability to set aside personal opinions and serve equally well governments of different political persuasions – is fundamentally important. Since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms civil servants have been appointed on merit and while there have been varying degrees of ministerial involvement in the process over the years, the principle of impartiality has been maintained. 

The high-profile departure of several permanent secretaries in recent years has raised questions as to the degree of ministerial involvement in staffing changes and the impact this may have had on the actual or perceived impartiality of those appointed to senior roles.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee, which I chair, wanted to investigate the way very senior appointments and dismissals are made and whether current processes allow the appropriate amount of ministerial involvement. In our report, Permanent Secretaries: Their Appointment and Removal, we found that the level of formal ministerial involvement in appointments, as set out in the Civil Service Commission Recruitment Principles, struck the correct balance in ensuring ministers could be confident in the quality of those appointed while maintaining an objective merit-based approach. We were concerned that any move towards greater ministerial involvement risked upsetting that balance, including potentially having a chilling effect on the accounting officer function.

Nonetheless, we felt that certain high-profile departures might have reflected a desire among ministers to personalise appointments and assert their authority. This is unhelpful, not least because it risks civil service turnover coinciding with ministerial churn, creating a perception of politicisation of appointments and damaging institutional knowledge. We were clear that political alignment should never be a factor in deciding on a permanent secretary. The cabinet secretary has a vital role to play in ensuring such changes in personnel, if necessary, are done with due process.

We recommend that departure processes should be formalised to guard against the improper removal of civil servants – minsters, including the prime minister, should be required to explain any decision to replace a senior civil servant to the Civil Service Commission.

We also make a number of more technical recommendations, including:

  • Regularising the appointment process for the cabinet secretary/head of the civil service broadly to echo that for permanent secretaries
  • Updating the Senior Appointments Protocol to reflect current practice, including the advent of external by default
  • Providing greater transparency over the role of the Senior Leadership Committee
  • Reviewing the roles of the Civil Service Commission, Senior Leadership Committee and ACOBA in regulating moves in and out of the civil service, and how those bodies interact.

Finally, we consider the unusual position of civil servants in the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. While part of the UK-wide civil service and organisationally accountable to Whitehall – an arrangement we wholeheartedly endorse – officials serving the Scottish and Welsh governments are politically accountable to the SNP and Labour governments there. This can create tension, especially as we have recently seen in Scotland, when the political priorities of the devolved government test the boundaries of the devolution settlement. Such situations require careful handling from the permanent secretary in that nation, with the involvement of the cabinet secretary. It may, in the end, be necessary for the permanent secretary to request a ministerial direction before allowing civil servants to undertake such work.

The full report from the Lords Constitution Committee can be read here.

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