22 October 2004
Civil servants determined to safeguard the impartiality of the service and limit the role of political advisers have won a partial victory.
The long-awaited draft Civil Service Bill, which is due to be published in the next month, is expected to uphold the principles of an independent civil service.
One source told Public Finance: 'It's a divisive issue. Those in support of the Bill want to see the political neutrality maintained and Parliament allowed to oversee the running of the service. However, many others believe this is a step backwards and that we need to have people appointed who can deliver the policies of the government in an effective way.'
One senior civil servant said the key to the future was appointment on merit. He said: 'When did it happen that only people appointed by the government could do a good job? The ethos of the civil service is that appointments are on merit and we serve whatever flavour of government is in office.'
It was a 'smokescreen' to suggest that only those who support the government can be advisers, he added.
Speaking in a debate on the issue in March this year, Lord Wilson, who was Cabinet secretary from 1998 to 2002, said: 'I see a Civil Service Bill… not as a means of protecting vested interests or stalling reform, but as an essential component of any continuing reform programme.'
Many in the senior civil service have their doubts about the effectiveness of a Bill, including Cabinet secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, who is said to be 'lukewarm' on the issue.
A Cabinet Office colleague said: 'It's fair to say, he does not consider the issue a top priority. There are many more important points to be made, and his focus is ensuring the current and future civil service is fit for purpose. What is most important is a set of people who can deliver the programme.'
Boateng leaps to defence of Treasury staff dubbed 'thick'
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Paul Boateng has defended his department's civil servants, accused at the weekend of being the 'thickest' in Whitehall.
Responding to comments from David James, the business troubleshooter brought in by the Conservatives to identify government waste, Boateng said he lacked credibility and damned his work as a 'gimmick'.
James, who advised the government on the finances of the Millennium Dome, claimed in an interview with a Sunday newspaper that the Treasury's personnel were the 'thickest bunch of civil servants I have ever come across'.
Boateng said: 'This personal abuse is not worthy of comment, but must raise serious concerns about the man's credibility'. He accused James of 'making up dodgy figures'.
James also said that the Cabinet Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should be axed. He criticised the Gershon report on eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy as a 'wasted opportunity'.
James has spent the past ten months conducting a line-by-line efficiency review of every government department. He claims the government's own cost-cutting plan is 'seriously flawed'.
A Treasury source told Public Finance: 'He has a reputation for talking straight, but this is perhaps taking it a bit too far. There are some very capable and competent people working here who do not appreciate his comment.
'Most of what he has suggested is already government policy, so he has clearly not done his own homework.'
Lord Birt's advisory role 'will remain unpaid'
Downing Street has denied reports that it has plans to pay the former BBC director general John Birt for his services as an adviser to the government.
Sources in Whitehall claim that Lord Birt had asked to be paid following the departure of Geoff Mulgan, as head of the Strategy Unit at Downing Street.
One told Public Finance: 'Clearly, there is more to be done now and he seems to be involved more than ever. But there are huge concerns about his influence and his position as an unofficial adviser.'
Government officials played down any talk of payment. One said: 'He has many outside interests and is unlikely to become a paid adviser to this government.'
As well as the Labour government, Birt also advises the management consultancy McKinsey and is a director of Paypal, the credit card Internet payment system owned by Internet auctioneer eBay.
But senior civil servants remain wary of his role and status. One told Public Finance: 'He is a walking conflict of interest. It is not appropriate for him to be paid and he clearly would not want to make his role official, as that would obviously curtail his freedom and his ability to do what he wants.'
Downing Street said it had no plans to pay Birt. A spokeswoman said: 'We do not discuss details, but Lord Birt is an unpaid adviser and it will remain that way.'