Following the Dominic Raab bullying affair, some Conservatives are calling for civil service reform, including a step that could re-open the door to patronage and the politicisation of the service, taking it back to the 19th century.
Lord Francis Maude says he will address the dilemma of relations between ministers and their top civil servants which the affair raises in a review of accountability and governance which he is carrying out for the government. He writes in today’s Observer:
“We need a much more robust culture, with less groupthink, more rugged disagreement, and the confidence to both offer challenge and to accept it. That includes accepting candid feedback…
“We also,” he writes “need to be more robust and less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation.’ [O]ther systems deal with this better. In France, permanent civil servants often have overt political affiliations, and it causes few problems. In Australia, permanent civil servants in ministers’ private offices are released from the obligations of political impartiality and can take part in party political activity. We don’t need to go that far, but the key, as always, is transparency and pragmatism”.
Civil service reform is a subject with a long and not altogether successful history in which a member of the Trevelyan family, which has roots in Wallington Hall, Northumberland, played a prominent part in the 19th century.
The modern civil service was established in 1854 following a review commissioned by William Gladstone, chancellor of the Exchequer, from Charles Trevelyan, permanent secretary at the Treasury, and Sir Stafford Northcote, who later became chancellor himself. They recommended a system of pre-entry examination and promotion on merit.
The Trevelyan-Northcote reforms, not completed until Gladstone’s premiership of 1868-74, have been described by the historian Lord (Peter) Hennessey, quoted in a House of Commons public administration select committee (PASC) report, as: “the greatest single governing gift of the 19th to the 20th century: a politically disinterested and permanent Civil Service with core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next.”
Defending his reforms against the Whig, Lord John Russell, Gladstone, as recorded by his biographer Roy Jenkins, argued that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had marked the change from prerogative to patronage, that since then there had been a movement from bribery to influence and that this was a process which must continue. It is an argument that sounds odd today but was a step forward at the time: influence is certainly better than bribery.
Numerous attempts to further reform the civil service have followed, including the Haldane Report of 1918 and the abortive Fulton Report of 1965. In his book The Prime Minister: The Office And Its Holders Since 1945, Hennessey records that it was not until 1928, when Sir Robert Vansittart became principal private secretary to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, that the career civil service finally captured the prime minister’s private office.
According to the PASC, chaired by Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, the Fulton committee was subverted by the civil service, as described by its historians Peter Kellner and Lord (Norman) Crowther-Hunt, by narrowing its terms of reference at the outset and then arguing at the conclusion that the restrictions invalidated much of what it said.
Around the time that Fulton was deliberating, Richard Crossman, minister for housing and local government in Harold Wilson’s cabinet, was engaged in a long-running tussle with his permanent secretary, the formidable Dame Evelyn Sharp. The way senior servants wage, and win, such battles was described by the political journalist Anthony Howard in his introduction to The Crossman Diaries:
“[W]hat he (Crossman) does not appear to have reckoned with was the ease with which such individually influential, non-elected figures in Whitehall could (and would) combine in order to impose what, perhaps revealingly, is always called ‘the official view’.
“Civil servants can do this, Crossman points out, at two levels. First, there is the insistent ‘official’ advice that a minister gets within his own department; but on top of that, there is always a cohesive inter-departmental view to be pressed on the minister’s own colleagues once any disputed question goes to cabinet.
“No wonder that within six months of being in the cabinet he had already concluded that, unless a minister has the Prime Minister or some other extremely important colleague backing him to the hilt, the chance of prevailing against the official view is nil.”
The Cameron government’s civil service reform plan, written by Maude, Cabinet Office minister at the time, proposed in 2012 that “to reflect ministers’ accountability to Parliament for the performance of their departments” there [should] be a strengthening of the role of ministers in departmental and permanent secretary appointments”.
At present , the plan said, the prime minister may veto the choice of the independent selection panel, but not select an alternative candidate. Providing ministers with the final say over the appointment process, would, it stated, increase the chance of a successful relationship between a secretary of state and his or her permanent secretary and as a result, increase the likelihood of the department operating effectively.
The plan committed the government to consulting with the civil service commission on its proposals. The commission, however, did not agree, and reached a compromise with the government. The PASC) in its 2013-14 report, said:
“We welcome the compromise between the government and the Civil Service Commission on the appointment of departmental permanent secretaries, which allows for increased involvement for departmental ministers but leaves the recommendation with the Commission’s interview panel and the final decision with the Prime Minister. This should avoid any misunderstanding that the decision should bypass a secretary of state altogether.
“We recognise the unique demands placed on ministers who do not control the appointment of their most senior official in their department, particularly as this previously almost secret relationship is today more than ever exposed to public scrutiny and to the glare of publicity. Tensions are bound to arise between politicians and their officials who seek to remain impartial, but we are sceptical about whether increased political influence over their appointment would resolve these tensions.
“Effective working relationships at the top of Whitehall departments depend on openness and trust, and it is far from clear how the government’s original proposal would promote this. We remain concerned that the government’s original proposal is only “on hold” and that the minister still seems intent on pursuing it without the wider and deeper consideration of the future of the Civil Service which would be needed before taking more radical steps. We wish to make it clear that the Civil Service Commission has our fullest support.”
Now it seems that the proposal was indeed only on hold, that the Raab affair is being taken as an opportunity to revive it, and that MPs and the public are being softened up for a new attempt to politicise senior civil service appointments – and by the same man who was responsible for the civil service reform plan which first proposed the idea in 2012, Lord Maude.
Not to be ‘mealy-mouthed’, as Maude says, giving secretaries of state power to appoint their senior civil servants instead of relying on open competition would re-open the door to the patronage that Gladstone saw as an advance on prerogative – though that it is hardly what is expected today.
Ministers already have party-political special advisers (SPADs) – the type who, notoriously on one occasion – seized on the death of Princess Diana as “a good day to bury bad news”. Unlike civil servants, SPADs come and go as governments change. Now it seems we may be on the way to seeing graduates of the Bullingdon drinking club at Oxford and the right-wing influencers of the think tanks and lobby groups of Westminster’s Tufton Street taking over the top levels of Whitehall too.