Sunak urged to give civil service vote of confidence

Constitutional reforms are needed to rebuild trust in the political system and restore relations between ministers and civil servants, researchers say
Source: Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

19 Jul 2023

The prime minister should “commit to treating civil servants and constitutional regulators with respect and avoiding negative public briefing against them,” according to a new report by the Institute for Government and University College London’s Constitution Unit.

He should require “members of the Cabinet and governing party to abide by the same principle”. Civil servants “should not be beyond constructive criticism, but undermining confidence in them risks damaging trust in the political system as a whole.”

Publicly backing the civil service would be a “quick win” and is one of a series of ready-made reforms that would strengthen the UK’s constitution and governing institutions.

“Perennial tensions in the relationship between ministers and the civil service have been exacerbated by the political stresses of the Brexit process and the Covid pandemic,” the report warns.

These tensions have culminated in “some politicians’ attacks on the civil service, and some high-profile removals of permanent secretaries under the Johnson and Truss premierships.”

The report, aimed at informing political party manifestos in the run-up to the next general election, presents a series of “proposals that have already been carefully thought through”. They amount to “a realistic roadmap to sensible constitutional reforms” which would “greatly help to alleviate some of the constitutional concerns and pressures that have arisen in recent years”.

The proposals range from “quick wins” which could be delivered by the current government, or within the first 100 days of a new parliament, to “moderate” changes which require consultation or legislation, and “larger more controversial reforms.”

A new Civil Service Act is one of the “moderate” reforms outlined in the report. This would not only “underpin the permanence of the civil service” but also “more clearly lay out its objectives” and “provide an opportunity to establish clearer accountability mechanisms for the civil service”.

Another proposal is for a new Civil Service Board, with “more direct reporting to parliament”. The head of the civil service “should be required to address the perverse incentives in the current pay and promotion practices that incentivise civil servants to move rapidly between jobs and often departments for career progression”.

And a revised Ministerial Code “should emphasise ministers’ need to respect, and not brief against, the civil service”.

Removing some hereditary peers from the House of Lords, strengthening intergovernmental and devolution arrangements, and replacing the First Past the Post voting system  are among some of the other proposals in the report.

Meg Russell, UCL Constitution Unit director, said: “The past period has been a turbulent one in our constitution, which has raised significant public concerns. But there are many viable and well-developed ideas for change, some of which could be implemented quickly and easily”.

Dr Hannah White, director, Institute for Government, commented: “The health of our constitution is often an afterthought but political parties minded to address the stresses and strains it has suffered in recent years will find this report an invaluable guide to options that have already been worked up”.

The Cabinet Office had not responded to a request from CSW for comment at the time of writing.

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