Whitehall focus Civil service politicisation exaggerated

16 Mar 06
Recently retired mandarins have described claims that ministers have politicised the modern civil service as 'exaggerated'.

17 March 2006

Recently retired mandarins have described claims that ministers have politicised the modern civil service as 'exaggerated'.

An influential group of recent permanent secretaries – Sir Nick Montagu, Sir David Omand and Sir Robin Young – responded last week to a Commons' investigation into the relationship between ministers and civil servants.

All three dismissed suggestions by the public administration select committee that Whitehall's widespread use of special advisers, new informal decision-making processes and creeping ministerial influence over 'independent' appointments had compromised Whitehall traditions.

These views were recently articulated to the PASC by the likes of former Cabinet secretary Lord Butler. Butler's 2004 investigation into decision-making prior to the war in Iraq accused ministers of informal, 'sofa government' decision-making, underpinned by a reliance on unaccountable advice, notably from politically appointed special advisers.

But Montagu, who retired as Inland Revenue chair in 2004, has submitted written evidence warning the MPs against overplaying such views when they report back later this year.

'The dangers of a politicised civil service are greatly exaggerated by those who want to maintain the status quo,' he wrote.

Asked to expand his views before the committee on March 9, Montagu said: 'I don't think, for example, that the greater use of special advisers is politicisation…

I think they're indicative of a government wanting to do business in a different way.'

However, Montagu said he could see elements of politicisation creeping into appointments processes and attacked 'appointments that are ostensibly made on the basis of fair and open competition, [but] actually made on the basis of political considerations'.

Young, permanent secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry until 2005, claimed that older ex-mandarins had created the 'wrong impression' of Whitehall politicisation by implying that change was inherently bad. He said Whitehall had merely adapted to the demands of modern government by creating new decision-making frameworks.

But Sir Michael Quinlan, former permanent secretary at the Department of Employment, sounded a note of caution. He argued that Butler's report, and Lord Hutton's investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Whitehall scientist David Kelly, had exposed a culture where there was now 'less weight given to the [independent] civil service than in the past'.

Initiative set to cut paperwork for NHS staff

The Cabinet Office is to reform NHS information-sharing rules to give staff more time for patient care and treatment.

Officials at the Better Regulation Executive have joined forces with the Department of Health to reduce the duplication of NHS patient records by recommending ways that staff, such as GPs, can share information.

Cabinet Office minister Jim Murphy said the aim was to clarify rules on patient data-sharing that have often confused NHS staff, and reduce the number of regulations applied to the health sector. 'We're enabling [staff] to focus on the invaluable work of treating patients,' he said.

He added that the initiative would not weaken patient confidentiality.

In particular, the two departments have received assurances that the Law Society, Association of British Insurers and Association of Personal Injury Lawyers will work 'to reduce the number of requests for patient records in support of personal injury claims below £10,000' the Cabinet Office said.

The agreement is expected to reduce the number of requests for patient records by 300,000 annually. The current personal injury claims system requires NHS staff to screen and copy hundreds of records each day – wasting thousands of working hours.

The BRE also intends to introduce a single protocol on information-sharing 'that cuts through the confusion created by copious amounts of legislation and guidance'.

For its part, the DoH will issue guidance promoting consistent interpretation of legislation on the use of data for medical research.

Health minister Jane Kennedy said her department was reacting to staff feedback: 'The potential benefits are obvious,' she added.

Standards body calls for a Civil Service Act

The Committee on Standards in Public Life will continue to push for a Civil Service Act, its chair Sir Alistair Graham said last week.

The committee has long been agitating for such an Act, which it says would underpin the non-partisan nature of the civil service.

'[The Act] would constitute a measure at once symbolic and practical, and the committee will continue to urge for its passage,' Graham said on March 9 at the first open meeting of the committee.

'Entrenching the impartiality and other core values of the civil service in statute would send out a strong message to the public that the civil service belongs to government in general, not to one particular administration.'

Graham's call was backed by constitutional historian Peter Hennessy. In a speech at the meeting, he said lines had become blurred between the 'two-and-a-half governing tribes' of the civil service: ministers, officials and special advisers.

'We need to repaint the red lines between professions so everyone knows where they should stand,' he said.


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