Ministers sidestep calls for tougher rules to govern perm sec sackings

Constitution Committee warned of “insufficient safeguards” in the wake of Tom Scholar’s dismissal from Treasury top job
Sir Tom Scholar Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

25 Jan 2024

Ministers have sidestepped a call to introduce a beefed-up regime for handling the removal from post of permanent secretaries and other civil service leaders following the high-profile sacking of Treasury chief Sir Tom Scholar.

Members of the House of Lords Constitution Committee warned in their October 2023 report on the appointment and removal of perm secs that they were concerned about “insufficient safeguards” in relation to the departure of senior civil servants.

Peers acknowledged that the removal from post of senior civil servants on political or ideological grounds was rare, but said “recent examples” were an indication of potential shortcomings.

Their report said that under no circumstances should civil servants be dismissed on purely political or ideological grounds – as the inquiry heard had been the case with Scholar.

Among its recommendations, the committee said formal departure processes should be set out in writing, requiring ministers and the prime minister to explain their decision to remove and replace a senior civil servant to the Civil Service Commission. Committee members said the explanation could potentially be given in private to the commission.

Peers said that processes should be “sufficiently flexible” to allow a minister to replace a senior official at short notice when a working relationship with them had broken down.

But they said it was desirable for senior civil servants to be given the opportunity to build a positive working relationship with ministers and demonstrate that they can deliver the government’s priorities. Notoriously, Scholar was sacked by then-prime minister Liz Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng in their first days in Downing Street.

In its just-published response to the report, the government agrees that permanent secretaries “should not be removed from their posts without process”. But it adds that “swift action will be needed” if efforts to resolve problems are unsuccessful and a relationship “breaks down irrevocably”.

The response says “issues about personal fit and personal relationships should be dealt with in an open, transparent and proper way” at the highest levels of departments. Nevertheless, ministers stopped short of accepting peers’ particular recommendation about formal processes and a prime ministerial explanation being given to the Civil Service Commission.

“The importance of a relationship of trust and confidence between a minister and their civil servants cannot be understated,” the response said. “Formal HR processes already exist around performance management, conduct and discipline issues and sit alongside an individual’s core employment rights.”

Former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill had told a Constitution Committee evidence session for the report that the autumn 2022 removals of Scholar and then-national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove appeared to be a “deliberate signal to Whitehall that political alignment with the new government’s views was the key criterion and capability, loyalty, performance were not”.

The Treasury’s 2022-23 annual report and accounts revealed that Scholar’s exit cost almost £500,000 in severance pay and compensation.

The government was more direct in its opposition to the Constitution Committee’s call for the Civil Service Commission to play a role in cases where senior civil servants are dismissed from post on performance or conduct grounds.

“As these are HR matters (undertaken by the employer) the government does not at present see a role for the commission to play in ensuring due process is followed,” ministers said. “The first civil service commissioner agrees.”

Perm secs to get reminder about ministerial briefings on appointment powers

Elsewhere in its response to the report, the government pledged to write to perm secs and HR directors to stress the importance of giving proper briefings to incoming ministers on their right to be involved in the appointment process for senior civil servants – and to repeat the briefing when relevant vacancies arise.

Peers said they had been told that ministers were “not sufficiently aware” of the extent of their influence over appointments, or the limits on it.

In their recommendation, they said proper briefings would “help to avoid tension during the recruitment process and reinforce ministerial ownership of the process and the quality of those appointed”.

Ministers responded: “The government agrees that it is essential that ministers are properly briefed about the ways in which they may be involved in the recruitment of senior staff in their department. A note to permanent secretaries and HR directors reminding them about the opportunities for ministers to be involved in the recruitment of senior staff will be sent.”

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