Ministers should not fear civil service 'politicisation', Francis Maude says

Without changes, there will be “more cases like Raab’s when frustrations boil over”, reform adviser says
Photo: patrick nairne/Alamy Stock Photo

Ministers should have more freedom to appoint civil servants,  reform veteran Francis Maude has said in the wake of Dominic Raab’s resignation.

Without a “material adjustment” to the way the civil service operates, there will be “more cases like Raab’s when frustrations boil over”, Lord Maude wrote in the Observer yesterday. Maude’s comments came as a series of ministers appeared to blame civil servants for the row that led to the justice secretary’s resignation last week – rather than the behaviour that an independent investigator described as “intimidating”, “aggressive” and an “abuse of power”.

Ministers should be “less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’”, according to Maude, who is advising the government on civil service reform.

“It is perfectly possible to preserve impartiality and, indeed, improve continuity while allowing ministers more say in appointments,” Maude wrote.

The former Cabinet Office minister said he would consider how to resolve the “dilemma” created by the “tension between maintaining impartiality and continuity, and ministers’ legitimate need for key officials to be effective and responsive” in his upcoming review of civil service accountability and governance.

“The inevitable tensions and frustrations are exacerbated because ministers rely on officials to implement policies and run their department. However, they have extremely limited authority to put in place officials of their choice, despite having near-total accountability for what those officials do. In some cases, they only find out about staffing changes on the grapevine or from the media,” Maude said.

“This is said to be the price for our system of a permanent politically impartial civil service. In all such systems, there is a tension between maintaining impartiality and continuity, and ministers’ legitimate need for key officials to be effective and responsive.”

Maude urged ministers to learn from other governments where civil servants are not required to be politically impartial. In Australia, for example, “permanent civil servants in ministers’ private offices are released from the obligations of political impartiality, and can take part in party political activity”; while in France, “permanent civil servants often have overt political affiliations, and it causes few problems” Maude said.

“We don’t need to go that far, but the key, as always, is transparency and pragmatism,” he wrote.

He added: “Impartiality is important, but it must not mean neutrality, still less passivity. Capable ministers relish challenge. No sensible minister wants to embark on a course without hearing all the evidence and arguments. Of course, this requires ministers – and senior officials – to show that they welcome it.”

'Ministers will no longer be able to direct departments'

Maude’s comments followed suggestions by ministers and backbenchers that the outcome of the bullying probe into Raab’s behaviour could diminish ministers’ ability to work effectively with civil servants.

In his resignation letter on Friday morning, Raab said the inquiry has “set a dangerous precedent” by “setting the threshold for bullying so low”.

He said ministers must also “be able to give direct critical feedback” – something the report did not call into question, instead criticising the manner in which Raab communicated with officials.

Oliver Dowden, who replaced Raab as deputy prime minister, said yesterday that he did not want the inquiry to lead to “some kind of diminution in the ability of ministers to expect the highest standards – because in the end senior civil servants and senior ministers are united in their goal of serving the British people”.

“I do think that out of the report, there is a need to look at our processes around that and that's why we will be looking at it to see whether we can make it simpler and fairer and less complaints,” he told BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme yesterday.

He echoed Rishi Sunak's assertion on Friday that government should learn from the Raab inquiry "how to better handle such matters in future".

The PM said in his response to Raab's resignation letter that there had been "shortcomings in the historic process that have negatively affected everyone involved" – which civil service leaders Simon Case and Alex Chisholm later pledged to address.

A number of backbench Conservative MPs expressed sympathy for Raab last week, with MP Ben Bradley suggesting the report proved that “unelected people” have control over appointed ministers.

"I agree with what [Raab] said in his letter that if civil servants are able to force people out whenever they want, ministers will no longer be able to direct departments,” he told CSW's sister title PoliticsHome.

Paul Bristow said: “We are not a serious country anymore, it is a dangerous precedent and I worry about any minister who tells any civil servant what to do."

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