The prime minister should explain in writing the reasons for sacking permanent secretaries, amid concerns that top officials have been dismissed due to ideological differences, according to the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee.
In a report released today, the committee states that it had been prompted to examine the issue by the “high-profile removals of senior civil servants on what appeared to be political or ideological grounds.”
In 2020 alone, 12 perm secs or “civil servants of equivalent seniority left their posts, including the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill” the report says. It also references the departure of Treasury perm sec Sir Tom Scholar in 2022, which “was widely reported as a sacking”.
The report cites Sedwill describing the departures of Scholar and national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove during the short-lived Truss premiership as “a deliberate signal to Whitehall that political alignment with the new government’s views was the key criterion and that capability, loyalty and performance were not”.
It states: “Some recent departures and appointments have been conducted in the public eye and might be seen to reflect a desire on the part of ministers to personalise appointments and assert their authority.”
The report, titled Permanent secretaries: their appointment and removal, warns that this “risks civil service turnover coinciding with ministerial churn, creating a perception of politicisation and damaging institutional knowledge”.
While the prime minister appoints perm secs, they should be “conscious of the principle of merit and confident that the chosen candidate is able to work with a minister of any political persuasion who may be appointed to the relevant department”.
The report states: “It is particularly important that removal of a permanent secretary on the grounds of a poor working relationship does not become cover for arbitrary removal of permanent secretaries on personal, political or ideological grounds, which should not occur under any circumstances.”
It argues that “formal departure processes should be set out in writing, requiring ministers and the prime minister to explain to the Civil Service Commission – in private if necessary – their decision to remove and replace a senior civil servant”.
And the report calls for the Civil Service Commission to be involved in any dismissal of senior civil servants on performance or conduct grounds, “by ensuring due process is followed”.
Another issue raised is the way that the cabinet secretary is appointed, which is usually by the prime minister on the advice of the departing cab sec and the first civil service commissioner. This process should be made more transparent and conducted “in a manner similar to that for permanent secretaries”, a move which would “strengthen permanent secretaries’ confidence in the management of the civil service”.
The report stresses that special advisers should have no formal involvement in recruiting or dismissing top officials, and describes "disturbing comments" by spads in recent years over the appointment or departure of officials.
“Public statements of this nature are unacceptable because they risk giving the impression – or tolerating the reality – that special advisers are managing civil servants,” it says.
In terms of ministerial involvement in appointments, the report concludes that the current level, set out in the civil service commission recruitment principles, “strikes the correct balance in ensuring ministers could be confident in the quality of those appointed while maintaining an objective merit-based approach”.
It cautions: “Any move towards greater ministerial involvement risks upsetting that balance.”
Elsewhere, the report says perm secs have a responsibility to brief incoming ministers “on the degree to which they can be involved in the appointment of senior civil servants”. This will not only “help to avoid tension during the recruitment process” but will also “reinforce ministerial ownership of the process and the quality of those appointed”.
Commenting on the need to change the way perm secs are dismissed, committee chair Baroness Drake said: “The cabinet secretary and head of the civil service has a vital role in ensuring that individuals are not removed from their posts by a secretary of state or a prime minister without due process.”
A government spokesperson said: “The government is grateful to the committee for its report and will carefully consider its findings.”
This story was updated at 16:00 on 20 October 2023 to include a government response