A tough Act to follow Jonathan Baume

28 Apr 05
Would a civil service Act damage democracy and good government? Not according to the union leader representing Whitehall mandarins, who takes issue with arguments expressed in a recent PF feature

29 April 2005

Would a civil service Act damage democracy and good government? Not according to the union leader representing Whitehall mandarins, who takes issue with arguments expressed in a recent PF feature

George Jones presents an erudite case against a Civil Service Act (A healthy constitution, 8–14 April).

Unfortunately, he is arguing against a different Act to that which its advocates are promoting. Moreover, comments that supporters of an Act believe that 'the civil service needs to protect itself against changes that will make it more efficient and responsive to the needs of ministers' only serve to illustrate the frivolousness of his argument.

Jones is right to argue that civil servants are 'servants of the Crown' who 'serve ministers, not MPs, peers nor select committees'.

The FDA, which represents senior civil servants, recognises that the civil service has no separate constitutional identity to that of the government. However, the reality is that the elected executive wields a concentration of power almost unparalleled in a modern democracy.

The checks and balances that should operate in any healthy system, including within Parliament and the judiciary, are weak in the UK. It is not the role of the civil service to act as such a check and balance in any formal sense.

Nonetheless, the civil service assists ministers in wielding the enormous powers of the state and has a responsibility to help ensure that ministers do so within the terms of our unwritten constitution, within the framework of law. It helps ensure that ministers do not seek to politicise the structures of the state in a way that would fundamentally undermine the ability of any other political party to hold effective elected office.

The civil service therefore has a significant overall role within our constitution. Yet the elected government has almost total power over the civil service, including the ability to alter fundamentally its values and governance, without any effective parliamentary oversight.

The role of a civil service Act is simple. It is to achieve a cross-party consensus about the values and governance arrangements of the civil service, and to ensure that these can only be changed with such a consensus.

Because all of the major political parties have an interest in the structures of the state, we believe that any such fundamental changes should be implemented by Parliament and not simply by the elected government of the day.

However, we have never proposed that an Act should constrain the elected government in changing most aspects of the way in which the civil service works and is structured, including employment conditions, professional arrangements or shape and organisation of government departments.

Jones is wrong to claim that Parliament has no direct relationship with the civil service. For example, permanent secretaries, as accounting officers, report directly to the Public Accounts Committee, and are regularly called before select committees. There are rules governing the publication of statistics prepared by the civil servants of the Office of National Statistics. And many of the FDA's members are also governed by professional codes such as those of the Law Society and Bar Council, acknowledging a wider accountability beyond Parliament.

In addition, the Civil Service Code was first proposed by the FDA in 1987 because civil servants were aware that ministers had lied to Parliament and had no route for raising this, and was drafted in its current form by a predecessor body of the current Public Administration Select Committee on the basis of a cross-party consensus.

There is nothing in the Civil Service Act that the FDA would support that would result in 'appointed servants' prevailing against ministers. Nor do I know of any advocate of an Act who wishes to 'extend the law to weaken the commitment and loyalty of the civil service to the government'.

As to the role of special advisers, the weakness of the current arrangement is that while there are only about 80, and no fundamental difference between the approach of successive Conservative and Labour governments on this issue, there is nothing to stop a future prime minister appointing 800 or 80,000 special advisers. They would all be paid by the taxpayer and accountable only to the political party that appointed them.

Surely even Jones would acknowledge that such a fundamental change in the UK system — moving in effect to a US model — should at least warrant parliamentary debate.

Jones may favour unfettered executive power. The FDA on the other hand believes in a politically impartial civil service, appointed and promoted on merit, and willing to serve any elected government with equal loyalty and professionalism. We prefer a mature democracy which balances the powers of government with the checks and balances that Parliament helps to implement, and that includes a role in overseeing the instruments of the executive.

All three major parties support an Act, and I hope that it becomes a priority for the incoming Parliament.

Jonathan Baume is general secretary of the FDA