May and Heywood urged to speak up for impartial civil service after "divisive" Brexit attacks

Ex-first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington calls for new guidance on the relationship between civil servants, ministers and special advisers, as he urges the prime minister and cabinet secretary to make a public statement on the need for impartial officials

By Matt Foster

08 Feb 2017

The government has been urged to draw up a new "compact" between civil servants and ministers in the wake of "highly charged and divisive" attacks on Whitehall's commitment to Brexit.

The civil service has faced criticism on several fronts since voters opted to quit the European Union last June, with concerns raised over the role it played in making the case to Remain, the lack of formal contingency planning for a "Leave" vote, and reported turf wars between the different departments handed responsibility for the UK's exit from the bloc.

Most recently, the departure of the UK's ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, caused some prominent Eurosceptics to publicly attack the civil service and suggest that impartial officials should be replaced with pro-Brexit figures.

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In a formal submission to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Sir David Normington – the former Home Office permanent secretary who last year stepped down as the watchdog charged with protecting the values of the civil service – warns that the government is facing "the challenge of a lifetime" in negotiating Brexit, and calls for both ministers and senior officials to do more to restate the value of an impartial bureaucracy.

"This requires initially a restraint in the relationship and above all a refusal on all sides to resort to public criticism and recriminations, whether on or off the record," the former first civil service commissioner writes.

"I would also like to see the prime minister and cabinet secretary together publicly restating the essential elements of the relationship between ministers and civil servants and being ready to speak out together and individually against those who seek to undermine it."

"There is a clear risk that those who offer impartial advice are seen as unenthusiastic about Brexit and become the target of criticism from MPs, ministers or special advisers" – Sir David Normington

While the former first civil service commissioner says "immediate threats" to the impartiality of the civil service have receded in recent years – he welcomes, for example, the scrapping of Extended Ministerial Offices, which allowed ministers to hand-pick their own external policy advisers – Normington warns of a "slow deterioration over time in the trust between ministers and civil servants".

He argues that there is now a greater willingness by ministers "to criticise civil servants in public", more leaks from officials themselves, and "a greater tendency to hold civil servants at arms length and not to form with them the close partnership, on which effective government relies".

Normington is also sharply critical of the approach taken by some special advisers in government, saying that while they can be "an important and positive addition to the resources available to ministers", they too frequently "set themselves up in opposition to civil servants" and hinder the relationship between ministers and their officials.

These pressures are, he suggests, now more acute following the "highly charged and divisive​" Brexit vote and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which also saw the civil service come under fire for supporting the UK government's policy of maintaining a unified Britain. 

"While it can be argued, with justification, that the civil service was doing no more than fulfilling its obligation to support the policies of the government of the day, it has not been able to escape the perception from some that it has abandoned its historic commitment to impartiality," he writes.

"In the case of Brexit that suspicion has continued into implementation. There is a clear risk that those who offer impartial advice are seen as unenthusiastic about Brexit and become the target of criticism from MPs, ministers or special advisers."

Normington: Current rules "easy to misrepresent or evade"

In a bid to clarify the role of the civil service in supporting ministers while also offering frank advice, Normington calls for a "new compact" to be drawn up which unifies "in more compelling language" the "basic principles" of the relationship between ministers, officials and spads.

"At present the 'rules' governing ministers, civil servants and special advisers are to be found in too many documents: the Ministerial Code, the Civil Service Code, the Special Advisers Code, the Armstrong memorandum, the Osmotherly rules and the Cabinet Office memorandum, to name but a few," he writes.

"This makes the rules of engagement easy to misrepresent or evade and there is no clear responsibility for their enforcement."

This new guidance should, Normington recommends, include a stronger emphasis on "shared accountability" between ministers and officials; a "proper structure for managing and overseeing special advisers"; a new right for ministers "to make an input into the annual assessment of the performance of the top three levels of the civil service"; and greater clarity on the role of officials in referendum campaigns.

"At present the 'rules' governing ministers, civil servants and special advisers are to be found in too many documents" – Sir David Normington

The former head of the Civil Service Commission also calls for the CSC to be given the power to hear complaints about breaches of the new "compact", and says the regulator should be asked to "report regularly on the health of the relationship" between ministers and officials.

While Normington concedes that "new documents rarely change behaviour", he argues that the refreshed guidance "would be a public demonstration of a shared commitment from the top to the enduring values of British government".

Normington's call for ministers and senior officials to do more to clarify the role of the civil service in the wake of the Brexit vote comes after cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood rejected suggestions that the organisation had come under unprecedented attack in recent months.

“I don’t think the criticism of the civil service is particularly virulent," Heywood told CSW in a recent interview.

"There are, occasionally, in some newspapers, some people criticising the civil service. That’s their right. The civil service, of course, has to be under scrutiny. And we are accountable. We totally accept that, and it goes with the job, as you say.

“But I definitely feel that the government, from the prime minister downwards, fully supports the civil service and the role of an impartial civil service. That’s not in question at all."

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