PACAC to probe ‘fraught’ relationship between civil servants and ministers

William Wragg says relationship "has been tested and in part does appear to be broken"
Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, and Simon Case, the head of the civil service. Photo: Simon Dawson/No.10 Downing Street

By Tevye Markson

25 Apr 2023

MPs have launched an inquiry into the “fraught” relations between civil servants and ministers, which will question if the civil service is still working as it should.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry will aim to understand how the civil service leadership operates today; if and how the government’s interaction with officials has deviated from established practice; and whether the civil service needs reform to overcome the tensions.

Committee chair William Wragg told CSW the inquiry will look at whether “increasingly fraught relations” between civil servants and ministers are “personality driven or if it's something more fundamental to the nature of how the civil service is constituted”.

The committee said high-profile dismissals of senior civil servants by ministers in recent years – such as former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar and cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill – as well as criticisms of civil service impartiality and competence during the Brexit process and Covid-19 pandemic “indicate a fundamental tension in relations between the government and the civil service”.

“My sense of it as an observer, studying, analysing, questioning, interrogating all kinds of people, is that that relationship has been tested and in part does appear to be broken,” Wragg said.

The committee is seeking evidence on whether civil servants feel confident in giving honest advice to ministers; how ministers and civil service leadership can create an environment where officials can “speak truth to power”; and the consquences of failing to do this on good policymaking.

At a recent PACAC evidence session, cabinet secretary Simon Case highlighted how officials face a challenge managing the “juxtaposition” in the civil service code between the “duty to support the government of the day to the best of your ability and upholding the values” of an independent and impartial civil service. 

Wragg told CSW civil servants "should of course maintain the ability to speak truth to power, but there should be a recommitment to understanding what the mandate might be for the government of the day”.

“That doesn't mean the government of the day can ride roughshod and adopt sharp practice to achieve its ends, far from it," he added.

“What I want overwhelmingly is something that works and that maintains the confidence of ministers, but that ministers are effective in their jobs, remembering their duties and responsibilities, that they show leadership and everything that that means and that the people working for them within the civil service feel valued in what they do.

“It needs to be as cohesive as possible. There will, I suppose, always be a natural tension, but there should also be that cooperation.”

The inquiry was announced shortly after Dominic Raab resigned as justice secretary on Friday, following an investigation that found he had bullied civil servants. Since then, there have been calls for reform on both sides, with the prime minister's reform adviser arguing for more politicisation of the civil service and unions calling for an independent inquiry into ministerial bullying.

Oliver Dowden, who has replaced Raab as deputy prime minister, has responded by promising to make the process of reporting ministerial bullying "simpler, fairer and less complex".

Wragg said PACAC's inquiry “might seem like an immediate reaction to the end of Friday” but was agreed last Tuesday before the Raab investigation was delivered. He said the civil service-ministerial relationship is something the committee has been looking into, "whether directly or indirectly, for some time".

The inquiry will examine the status and constitutional position of the civil service, such as whether the values enshrined in the civil service code continue to determine the conduct of officials and are respected by the governments they serve.

It will also look at what constitutes good leadership in government and whether the role of cabinet secretary is sufficiently empowered to lead the civil service effectively.

MPs will also consider whether the accountability of ministers and officials for policy formulation and delivery is sufficiently clear; if it could be clearer; and whether the current system of ministerial directions is effective.

The committee will also look at lessons the government can learn from other countries. 

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