Legislate to prevent ministers telling officials to break civil service code, commission says

Independent group also calls for changes to perm sec role and a beefed-up Civil Service Commission
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Legislation should be updated to prevent ministers from directing civil servants to flout the civil service code, an independent commission has said.

The update to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 is one of a series of recommendations to reset ministers’ relationships with civil servants from the UK Governance Project, a party-neutral commission whose members include former ministers and officials.

The report, which also calls for changes to the permanent secretary role and for the Civil Service Commission to be responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the code, aims to “restore public confidence in government” by identifying “relatively small changes that are easily deliverable”.

The recommendation to amend legislation to protect the civil service code comes amid controversy over ministers’ authority to instruct officials to act in a way that contravenes it. It comes just weeks after draft guidance was published instructing Home Office officials to disregard European court rulings blocking deportation flights under the controversial Rwanda scheme – a move experts have said violates the code.

The commission – which is chaired by former attorney general Dominic Grieve and whose members include former Government Legal Department chief Sir Jonathan Jones and former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara – calls for a beefed-up Civil Service Commission to strengthen governance of the code.

As well as gaining responsibility for investigating breaches, the commission should report annually on the state of the civil service with recommendations for improvement, and should have a confidential ethics hotline for advice “so that a formal complaint is not the only outcome”, the report says.

The beefed-up commission should continue to propose civil service appointments but “expressly on a politically neutral basis and with the aim of enhancing diversity”, according to the report, which adds that it must have an “appropriately-sized support staff”.

The report also sets out several recommendations to improve accountability and decision making in departments – including that the prime minister should set clear objectives for each department, which should be made public.

“The cabinet secretary is responsible for making sure these policy objectives are achievable and each permanent secretary is accountable to parliament for the implementation of these policy objectives,” the report recommends.

Meanwhile, the role and accountability of departmental permanent secretaries “should be restored and enhanced”, the report says. Perm secs should be accountable to parliament annually for statements made by or on behalf of their department; Freedom of Information requests; the keeping of public records of decision making; public appointments; and use of public money, it argues.

And rather than being given fixed-term contracts, as they are now, perm secs should be “subject to standards of performance and delivery”, according to the commission.

In another move to improve accountability, the report calls for ministerial directions to be recorded and provided to the National Audit Office, the Liaison Committee and the relevant parliamentary select committee. 

The report sets out recommendations to improve governance in a number of other areas, including standards and professional development for ethics and conduct; political honours; and ministerial standards and the ministerial code.

To improve standards, the commission calls on government to commission a “definitive guide to standards in public life”. All public bodies and individuals in public life would be subject to the guide, which would incorporate the Nolan Principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

There should be mandatory training on these standards for MPs, peers, special advisers and senior officials, with sanctions for failure to attend, the report adds.

To strengthen the ministerial code, it should be clarified and the integrity and ethics parts put on a statutory footing, the report says.

“It should set out the core responsibilities of ministers, including duties to act in the national interest and to uphold the rule of law; to act with professional integrity; to account properly and truthfully to parliament; to avoid conflicts of interest between their public role and private interests; to uphold the political impartiality of the civil service; and to ensure the proper use of government and public resources,” it says.

The Uk Governance Project has also called for an independent commissioner to be appointed with statutory powers to investigate – and instigate – possible breaches of the code, and to publish their findings.

While the PM should make the final decision on any sanctions, the report says they should have to publish their reasoning if they depart from the commissioner’s reasoning.

The commissioner would also maintain a register of potential conflicts of interests for ministers and spads – while the Civil Service Commission would do the same for civil servants.

Elsewhere in the report, the commission calls for an end to prime ministers making recommendations for honours; for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments to be given full independence through primary legislation; and for a “rigorous limit” on the number of spads in government.

In a foreword to the report, former attorney general and commission member Dominic Grieve wrote: “Current opinion polling shows with stark clarity the extent to which public confidence in our democratic processes is at a low point. Unless this issue is addressed, the risk exists of the public progressively turning away from them and placing their faith in alternatives that are incompatible with the maintenance of our freedoms."

“In carrying out this review and coming up with our recommendations, this commission believes that much can be done to restore public confidence by relatively small changes that are easily deliverable,” he added.

“If implemented, they are also capable of improving government and making the work of ministers, parliamentarians and civil servants easier, by providing a sounder framework of ethics and standards within which politics and government are conducted.”

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