02 May 2008
Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell has signalled his cautious support for legislation to enshrine civil service independence – as long as it does not constrain Whitehall's freedom for manoeuvre in the future.
The head of the home civil service, who has in the past expressed his ambivalence about any such Bill, said he was in favour of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, 'as long as it can be very principles- and values-focused'.
But O'Donnell, giving evidence to the public administration select committee on April 29, rejected suggestions that the Bill should define the role of special advisers and seek to limit their number to the 70 or so currently employed. He also said there was no need for the legislation to include ministers' obligations towards mandarins, as set out in the ministerial code.
O'Donnell argued that the threat of an increasingly politicised civil service was overstated. He claimed that having special advisers to provide political advice to departmental ministers could, in fact, help preserve officials' neutrality.
'Let's have a civil service Bill about what the civil service should do,' O'Donnell told the MPs. 'Good special advisers who do [political advice] well are very good news for the civil service, because they keep us out of that territory,' he said. 'With this sort of number they are not a problem at all.'
He said the purpose of the legislation should be 'helping the civil service perform in the twenty first century'. He added: 'I would say above all, let's keep it simple and keep it very focused, so we allow the civil service to have the flexibility to respond to new challenges.'
Elsewhere during the same session, Cabinet Office Minister Ed Miliband rejected the MPs' call for Janet Paraskeva, the civil service commissioner, to have the power to initiate investigations over issues of concern to Whitehall staff.