Civil service union raises impartiality fears over Brexit-focused recruitment changes

FDA general secretary Dave Penman questions why proposals will allow open selection processes to be ditched

By Jim Dunton

02 Feb 2017

A Brexit-driven decision to relax the civil service’s recruitment rules for some roles has prompted concerns about partisan appointments from the trade union for senior Whitehall staff.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said there was no justification for sidelining open and transparent recruitment competitions as part of the change to the rules around exceptional hiring outlined on Wednesday by first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore.

The move by Whitehall's recruitment regulator means departments will be permitted to use exceptions to bring in staff for up to three years on salaries of up to £142,000 without a fair and open recruitment process, shattering limits imposed by the coalition government. 

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The changes are aimed at reducing departments’ reliance on external consultants to deliver Brexit, and seemingly anticipates that a large number of requests for exceptions to the current rules – which limit such appointments to £87,500 and employment terms at two years – would otherwise be made.

Departments can now make a single business case to the Commission for a batch of hires, rather than doing so on a case-by-case basis. Requests must be made during the current calendar year, and the rules only apply to roles related to securing the UK’s departure from the European Union.

But the FDA’s Penman said that while there was a clear need for all departments to bring in new expertise to cope with the need for negotiators and other skills gaps created by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, the new arrangements ran the risk of partisan appointments.

While the Civil Service Commission has pledged to publish the names of appointees made under the new relaxed rules, Penman said such measures would not stop politically-motivated appointments being made.

“This is such a partisan and political issue; there’s a threat to the impartiality of the civil service,” he told CSW.

“What is it about the Brexit process that means they cannot have an open and fair recruitment for these roles? You can do that in a matter of weeks.”

Penman said ministerial calls for a Brexit “cheerleader” following the resignation of the UK’s permanent representative to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers last month showed the extent to which impartiality quickly came under threat.

He said that while Watmore had proposed checks and balances on the rule relaxation, such safeguards would not necessarily stop politically-driven appointments.

“There’ll be some issues if a minister recruits 20 of his friends – but what’s the point of knowing that a year after the fact?” he asked. “The exceptions are there for emergencies, and I do not see that applying in these circumstances.”

Civil Service World understands that while all departments have set up Brexit units, there is little consensus in the long-term on how many new roles will be required by the UK’s departure from the EU – or how many hires will be covered by the Civil Service Commission’s rule relaxation.

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood told CSW recently that the civil service "at the moment requires 1,500 to 2,000 extra roles" for Brexit, including "another 100 senior civil servants", and said Whitehall was already "two-thirds of the way" through filling those posts.

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