Departments have the recruitment freedoms they need for Brexit, says Civil Service Commission head

Watmore calls for more progress on diversity and hails programme to get ex-offenders in government jobs

Photo: Photoshot for CSW

By Richard Johnstone

26 Jul 2018

Changes to the civil service recruitment principles introduced earlier this year give government departments the powers they need to hire staff in response to any Brexit agreement, the first civil service commissioner has said.

Speaking to Civil Service World in the week that the commission published its annual report for 2017-18, Ian Watmore said the exception introduced into the recruitment principles in April would help departments make Brexit-related appointments.

Recruitment into the civil service rose by 14% as departments have already begun to increase workforces in response to Brexit, and use of exceptions has also risen, according to the annual report.

The commission also created a new exception designed to allow departments to improve social mobility. The new rule has already been in a pilot to recruit ex-offenders by departments in the North West and Watmore said it is set to be used in two more regions and with other groups such as military veterans.

Exceptions establish a waiver on the requirement for a “fair and open competition” when departments are looking for staff with “highly specialist skills” and a full open competition is “judged to be unlikely to secure suitable appointees within the required timescale”.


The use of exceptions to the civil service recruitment rules recognise that there are circumstances where it is necessary to provide some flexibility for departments to recruit, for example, a niche skill or experience set or where an urgent need makes it disproportionate or impractical to run a full open competition on merit and Watmore told CSW the new rules had “given departments the short term-opportunity to get people in now, to do negotiation and regulatory and legal changes”.

He added that “I don’t see any reason why, with the recruitment principles, that departments can’t get through Brexit”.  

“Depending on what deal is actually finally agreed upon, and I’m not going to speculate on what that might be, but whatever that might be there are going to be implementation challenges – which precede people challenges and they are going to need to recruit again then – we’ve enabled that through the recruitment principles. So it is now really down to government ministers and departments to make use of those to get the people they need.”

Watmore highlighted that the commission had revised the recruitment principles in 2-17-18 to place a greater focus on improving diversity. The principles now reference the need to ensure there is a diverse field in competitions and include an explicit mention of the duty of search consultants to ‘include the importance of achieving a strong and diverse field of applicants’.

However, he warned in the report that although there had been good progress since 2016 on appointing woman permanent secretaries, this could easily be reversed through natural wastage, and highlighted the persistent lack of senior black and minority ethnic leaders in the civil service. All current permanent secretaries are white and there have only ever been four from a BAME background.

Watmore told CSW that on gender diversity there has been “substantial progress over a long period of time”, with a 50-50 gender split SCS level that would soon work its way through to the top table.

“I think at the time we produced the report there were 12 permanent secretaries out of about 40 who were woman, so we are just on the edge of the 30% limit that is acceptable, but the two most recent retirements are both woman [the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders and the second perm sec at the Home Office Patsy Wilkinson].”

It was announced this week that Saunders would be replaced by leading barrister Max Hill, while Wilkinson has been replaced by Shona Dunn, currently the director general, Economic and Domestic Secretariat at the Cabinet Office.

Watmore said that if both Saunders and Wilkinson had been replaced by men “then you could slip back quite quickly” in the proportion of woman in the civil service’s top jobs, which demonstrated “it is always something to be kept focus on.”

There has also been “progress through the ranks” on ethnic diversity, but this had not yet reached the top table, which he said “in modern Britain that is difficult to support”.

“We can’t wait 10-15 years for the very good people to come through the ranks in the normal way – there has to be a mixture of recruitment from outside and progressions from within. And that is the same as where we were with woman 10 or 15 years ago. The journey is well trodden, we know what needs to be done, but it needs doing.”

Departments were aware they need to do this work, he added. “Everybody I speak to nowadays has a much more nuanced discussion about diversity. Whenever I used to mention the word diversity they’d always talk about women, and now they don’t they talk about BAME and disability and social mobility and the other challenges. So I think departments are aware, but it is difficult because particularly with BAME they’re fishing in the same pool as every other organisation in the country that is trying to up its diversity and we – the civil service – needs to make ourselves more visible in these recruitment markets as well as encouraging the internal talent to come through the ranks, and that is what I’m pressing the civil service to do more of.”

He highlighted work the commission had done to provide an exception to assist with a pilot scheme to recruit ex-offenders into employment by the civil service as an example of this work.

The exception in the April 2018 recruitment principles allows for an individual to be appointed for up to two years before being subject to normal civil service employment procedures. This has enabled the scheme in the north west of England, where civil servants have been recruited from three prisons into three departments – four at administrative officer grade and two at executive officer grade.

“That is already working, because the Civil Service in the North West have already been used to recruit a dozen ex-offenders direct into the civil service, people that would never have applied and even if people had encouraged them they would never have got through the old rules.

"That pilot is now being expanded to other regions – I think the east and south east is next to go – and I think departments are also looking at in other categories, like care leavers for example or military veterans.”

The commission’s annual report revealed that 45,363 people had been recruited to the civil service in 2016-17, up 14% from 39,792 in 2015-16. Around 11%had been recruited using the commission’s exceptions, up from 9.4% a year ago.

All departments and agencies had been audited in 2017-18 against the principles, compared to 49% in 2016-17, but only 85 breaches of recruitment Principles were found in the year, down from 240 in 2016-17.

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