Civil service watchdog reports 600% increase in ‘exceptional’ appointments

Commission says pandemic response drove a surge in hirings that were not subject to normal merit rules
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By Jim Dunton

22 Jul 2021

The government's response to the coronavirus pandemic prompted a near six-fold increase in the number of civil service appointments made outside of normal merit-based rules, the Civil Service Commission has said.

The regulator’s just-published annual report for 2020-21 says that 30,181 appointments were made under “exception” rules permitted by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, up from 5,203 the previous year – 5.8 times more.

It added that the number of civil service appointments had more than doubled to 91,000 in 2020-21, up from nearly 45,000 the previous year. The commission said that around 55% of the year-on-year increase in appointments had involved exceptions, with the remainder of appointments made on merit following a fair and open competition.

Commission chief executive Peter Lawrence acknowledged that the number of exception requests from departments and agencies had been “significant”,  but said it should also be “no surprise” under the circumstances.   

The commission’s annual report and accounts said the Department for Work and Pensions had hired 10,000 staff on merit and 4,500 using exceptions during the year. It added that the Office for National Statistics had made around 20,000 appointments under exceptions rules, which were related to the 2021 Census, and Public Health England had made around 1,100 additional exceptions appointments.

Lawrence is due to step down as commission chief executive this year but will remain as a director responsible for independent offices and the government’s Going Forward into Employment programme.

He said the commission secretariat had worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS Test and Trace and PHE throughout the pandemic to “facilitate and enable necessary and urgent appointments to be made”.

Lawrence said the commission had “robustly protected” its independence and the integrity of the recruitment principles it exists to uphold.

“The number of pandemic-related exception requests that we have supported has been significant, which under the circumstances should be no surprise,” he said.

“But relative to the wider impacts of the pandemic on citizens and the economy, the scale of the ask for exception approvals from across the entire civil service has been less significant.”

The High Court is due to hear a judicial review challenge to the government’s decision to appoint Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding to lead NHS Test and Trace last year and former Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe to as head of Covid-19 testing.

The challenge, launched by campaign group the Good Law Project with the backing of the FDA union, argues that both appointments – which were made without open competition – amount to cronyism and represent a breach of the Equality Act 2010.

Kate Bingham’s appointment as chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce was originally included in the challenge. But the Good Law Project removed her from its bid last month after it said new documents provided by the government had shown that the process used to recruit her had been “less poor than government had previously led us to understand”.

Bulk approvals

The commission said part of its strategy for dealing with pandemic-related recruitment demands for exceptions to the normal rules had been to issue bulk approvals that allowed departments to make a group of appointments using exception clauses to the recruitment principles it enforces.

“Usually, bulk agreements are used sporadically, however this year we made use of them to a greater extent, in particular for those departments tasked with increased frontline delivery at considerable pace,” the annual report said.

“The first department to approach us was PHE, with a request to bring medically qualified staff into testing centres at a range of grades, with an additional need to bring them in and out of service to manage peaks of work.

“At first the permission was for 40 appointments but this increased as the pandemic progressed. The final agreement was for up to 1,500 staff, using a number of exceptions – temporary appointments, secondments and the reinstatement of former civil servants, up to deputy director level.”

The commission added that other bulk approvals had seen the Scottish Government granted clearance to move 50 temporary appointments to Covid-19 related roles.

Another example was DHSC being given approval to call in 15 volunteers with salaries above Senior Civil Service pay band 2 to assist the department “from time to time” without the need for them to be classed as temporary civil servants each time they were brought in to work for free.

Cabinet Office rapped for “poor” compliance

Elsewhere in the annual report, the Cabinet Office was one of nine organisations rated as “poor” as part of the Civil Service Commission’s compliance work in relation to recruitment campaigns run by the departments and agencies it oversees.

The report said the Cabinet Office had 14 breaches of recruitment principles in 2020-21. It said the more serious ones included the appointment of a candidate who did not score as highly as another shortlisted candidate who was not offered the job being sought.

Other serious breaches included failing to follow the advertised recruitment process specified in one campaign and incorrectly applying the scoring matrix in another campaign. That situation meant some candidates wrongly passed the sift stage while candidates who applied through the Disability Confident Scheme were rejected – even when they had the same score as others who passed.

The other eight “poor” organisations were: the Animal and Plant Health Agency; the Charity Commission for England and Wales; the Department for International Trade; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; DHSC; the Ministry of Justice; the Ministry of Defence; and the National Crime Agency.

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - IfG calls for tougher rules on hiring departmental non-execs after Hancock affair

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