Peers launch inquiry into how perm secs are appointed and dismissed

Investigation follows controversial sacking of Tom Scholar last year
Tom Scholar. Photo: Parliamentlive.tv

By Tevye Markson

01 Mar 2023

Peers will investigate the process of appointing and dismissing permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has launched an inquiry which will explore the degree of ministerial involvement in the recruitment process for these positions.

It will consider the extent to which ministers and prime ministers have become more involved in the dismissal of post-holders, whether an informal shift has taken place, and whether this indicates a desire on the part of ministers to appoint candidates more sympathetic to their views.

The inquiry comes after the high-profile and contentious sacking of Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar in September by then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Scholar was sacked just a few days after then-prime minister Liz Truss and the chancellor took to power.

The decision was slammed by former top civil servants Gus O’Donnell and Nick Macpherson, who were Scholar’s most recent predecessors as Treasury perm sec. Lord Macpherson said it made "no sense", while Lord O'Donnell called it “a massive loss at a time when we need his wisdom more than ever”.

Scholar's replacement, James Bowler, has also questioned the departure, telling MPs in December that the sacking was "not normal".

A departure from core principles?

The constitution committee is seeking written submissions on the appointment and dismissal processes and whether any changes are necessary.

While the committee is welcoming contributions on any aspect of the topic, it has also published a series of questions as a guide to what they are looking for.

These include whether ministers and/or prime ministers have departed from the Civil Service Commission recruitment principles by becoming more closely involved in dismissing permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants.

The principles aims to provide assurance that appointments are on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. 

The committee has also asked if there a case for amending the recruitment principles to allow for greater ministerial involvement. "If so, how? Would this affect the constitutional independence and political impartiality of the civil service?," the committee has pondered.

Former civil service commissioner Sir David Normington said the sacking of Scholar sent a “clear message” that Truss and Kwarteng were not interested in civil servants’ impartial advice.

Other questions include:

  • Is there a notable trend for permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants to leave their posts when a change of prime minister or cabinet reshuffle takes place?
  • To what extent are other actors – such as special advisers – involved or influential in the recruitment and dismissal of permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants?

The committee is also seeking info on the challenges involved in permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants in Scotland and Wales forming part of the UK civil service while being politically accountable to the Scottish or Welsh governments. The committee wants to know if this has any implications for the recruitment and dismissal of permanent secretaries in Scotland and Wales.

The deadline for submissions is 5pm on Tuesday, 28 March.

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