Ministers should have more control over top civil service appointments, former trade minister Liam Fox has said, as part of a “radical reform” to improve skills, turnover and impartiality among civil servants.
Writing for the Telegraph, Fox, who was international trade secretary from 2016 to 2019, said the furore over high-profile civil servant Sue Gray’s departure for a job in the Labour Party had undermined the credibility of senior civil servants.
However, he said the problems with the civil service predated the current row and could be solved in part by a move towards a “hybrid” approach towards political appointees in the civil service.
Calling on the Conservative Party to take a “radical” approach to reform in its next general election manifesto, Fox said giving ministers more freedom to appoint experts to top civil service jobs would help build skills the civil service is lacking in key areas.
He said the Covid pandemic had highlighted that “educational backgrounds in both politics and the civil service are far too narrow”.
“While there is an urgent need for the political class to address this imbalance, we can do so more quickly within the civil service if we are able to bring more experts into office with each respective, elected government,” wrote Fox, who was a GP before becoming an MP in 1992.
This approach would also help address “one of the weaknesses in our current political system, the lack of institutional memory”, he added.
“One of the key benefits of a civil service is to compensate for a rapid turnover in ministers and shorter tenures in parliament by ensuring that lessons are learnt and mistakes are not repeated,” he said.
“Being able to bring in greater experience, in required areas, could bring added stability and wisdom to the system, especially at a time when a welcome diversity in civil-service recruitment is increasing the number of younger entrants.”
He added: “We do not need a US-style model where the sheer number of political appointees can produce messy transitions between administrations, but there are plenty of other models. Canada, Australia and Germany have systems where, to varying degrees, there is political control over the top jobs. This hybrid approach could be a template for us.”
To illustrate his point about the dearth of critical skills, Fox said that when he established the Department for International Trade under then-prime minister Theresa May in 2016, “it was clear that we did not have the necessary skills to create an independent trade policy entirely from within the ranks of the British civil service”.
He said he had been met with “complete institutional resistance” when he wanted to bring in more skills from the private sector.
Fox was warned in 2016 about technical barriers to bringing in a non-UK citizen to lead DIT, after he said he wanted to launch "an open, international recruitment" process for a new permanent secretary.
These included the Cabinet Office’s Civil Service Nationality Rules, which include a "general statutory prohibition" on the employment of non-British citizens in the organisation, with only "certain very limited exceptions".
Elsewhere in his column, Fox said he had “no reason to question” Gray’s integrity – but believed her appointment as opposition leader Keir Starmer’s chief of staff would cause “deep and long-lasting” damage to the perception of civil service impartiality.
“This is profoundly sad for the many fantastic civil servants who are committed, hard-working and dedicated public servants, but ministers need to be able to rely on the advice of their civil servants and have frank conversations with them without worrying that they might run off the next day and take up a job with their opponents,” he wrote.
Fox’s column appeared to criticise not just the appearance of impartiality, however. He suggested civil servants had not acted impartially during the “great political upheavals” caused by Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
He said the two crises had put the civil service “under unprecedented strain”.
And he questioned comments by then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill in 2019, who said Brexit “polarises public opinion” but that he would “continue to resist attempts to draw the civil service into the argument”. Sedwill also said the political issues were “for politicians to resolve”.
Fox wrote: “Amen to that but it is not the experience many of us have had in practice.”
The former minister’s comments are reminiscent of those he made in 2020, when he said civil servants were resistant to reform and instead acted out of “self-interest”.