The premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss tested the boundaries of the UK’s constitution. From criticisms of the judiciary and civil service to downright unlawful activity, their governments chipped away at the reputation of some of the UK’s most respected institutions. The increasingly fraught relationship between the UK civil service and ministers in recent years culminated in former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s assault on “Treasury orthodoxy”. The adverse market reaction to the “mini budget” showed that continued attacks on the UK’s institutions are not risk free. But can prime minister Rishi Sunak sufficiently restore their credibility?
There is always tension in the civil service’s dual obligations to deliver the agenda of the government of the day and provide an objective voice “speaking truth to power”. However, the second of these functions – the offering up of evidence and impartial advice – can run counter to ministers’ intentions, exposing civil servants to criticism – and worse.
Formally, ministers cannot fire officials but in practice they can, and do, force senior officials out. Phillip Rutnam – a former permanent secretary at the Home Office – was dismissed (and won compensation from the government for unfair dismissal) by former home secretary Priti Patel. Most recently, one of Kwarteng’s first actions as chancellor was to fire the Treasury’s permanent secretary, Tom Scholar.
It is unclear to what degree the dismissal of Scholar was instrumental in passing the mini-budget or simply symbolic. What is clear is that the interference of ministers in the management of civil service departments threatens robust policymaking, weakens a crucial check and balance of the UK’s uncodified constitution and strengthens the power of the executive. As proved retrospectively, removing a permanent secretary with so much experience (including of the 2008 financial crisis and pandemic) was risky given the macro-economic situation. In a tacit acknowledgement of their mistake, Scholar was promptly replaced after the mini budget by another official with significant Treasury experience, James Bowler.
Senior civil servants are not powerless. They can, and do, push back. For instance, if permanent secretaries believe a ministerial decision will breach certain criteria, they can seek a “ministerial direction”, forcing ministers to compel them to pursue a policy despite the civil service’s reservations. But officials have little recourse in the face of questionable behaviour by ministers. The latter is governed by the ministerial code, which is overseen by the prime minister. A Committee on Public Standards poll in 2021 indicated that 85% of the senior civil service and 90% civil service graduates have no confidence in the regulation of the ministerial code. This damages the civil service’s ability to attract and retain the best talent.
While ministerial directions are most commonly requested over value-for-money concerns, since 2018 they have been increasingly used for reasons of propriety, feasibility and because policies are believed to exceed a political mandate.
Weakening the independence of the civil service can also reduce trust in public institutions, which risks repelling businesses and investment and harming the UK’s wider reputation. A 2022 OECD report showed that only 35% of the UK population trust the national government, which is lower than the OECD average (41%).
Gordon Brown’s constitutional review for Labour indicates that the opposition sees this as a dividing line with the Conservatives, with proposals including a new anti-corruption and anti-cronyism commissioner, a new independent integrity and ethics commission with the power to investigate breaches of a stronger code of conduct, and a new body to ensure all appointments in public life are made on merit. These are reminiscent of some of the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2021, including stronger rules and more independent regulation of the ministerial code.
On becoming PM, Sunak contrasted himself to Johnson by promising to govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. Since then, he has scrapped the previous target of shrinking the civil service and restored Civil Service Fast Stream programmes for graduates, indicating a less hostile approach. This will go some way to restoring relations, but the reputations cannot be repaired overnight. Sunak also recently filled the position of the independent ethics adviser, critical to upholding the ministerial code, which had been vacant since Lord Geidt resigned in June. However, as Sunak decided against strengthening the adviser’s role and ministerial code, the prime minister can still override advice and maintains the exclusive power to instigate investigations. There is consequently the risk that the newly appointed Sir Laurie Magnus could in future become the third consecutive adviser to resign over disagreements with the PM.
Strengthening the independence of the civil service through the appointments system, ensuring dismissal is based on performance rather than politics, and reinforcing accountability through a revised ministerial code are basic necessities. Credibly repairing some of the damage to the UK’s governing institutions will mean Sunak must go beyond fine words and deliver reforms to strengthen vital checks and balances.
Kelly Satchell is an ex-civil servant currently working as a senior associate in political due diligence at Global Counsel