Civil Service: Permanent Secretaries — Question
11:26 am

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they accept the advice of the Civil Service Commission that the final decision in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries should be made by a selection panel independent of ministers, to safeguard a non-political civil service.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, in view of some of the exaggerated comments in the press in the last few days, it is perhaps best if I quote the statement by the First Civil Service Commissioner earlier this week:

"We agree that Ministers should have significant influence on the appointment of senior civil servants with whom they work closely; and, as more senior jobs are opened up to competition, we have developed a more active role for Ministers in top appointments than is generally understood".

In paragraph 8 of the accompanying explanatory note on Recruiting Permanent Secretaries: Ministerial Involvement, it says:

"Under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 the final decision whether or not to appoint the recommended candidate rests with the Prime Minister".

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord for reading extracts, but he has been rather selective. The fact is, his right honourable friend Mr Maude is essentially bullying the Civil Service Commission and threatening new legislation in order to give Secretaries of State the power to appoint Permanent Secretaries. Why are the Government going down that route? Do they not accept that it puts the political neutrality of the Civil Service at peril?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, we do not. I quote the right honourable Jack Straw, who said:

"I welcome his proposals for greater involvement by Secretaries of State in the appointment of their permanent secretaries".

He went on to say,

"in each of the three permanent secretary appointments that I made"-

that is, Mr Straw-

"in the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice-I insisted that there was a shortlist of at least three candidates from which I should choose. There was not the least allegation that I had acted in a partisan or cronyist way".-[Hansard, Commons, 19/6/12; col. 749].

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Lord Jenkin of Roding (Conservative)

My Lords, when I was Secretary of State for Industry, I was faced with a retiring Permanent Secretary. I found the names produced for me by the authorities unacceptable but I had hugely admired a senior civil servant from another department. I arranged that he should be appointed. He was one of the most successful Permanent Secretaries in the Department of Industry. A Minister's involvement in this is absolutely essential.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the relationship between a Minister and his or her Permanent Secretary is clearly key to the effective working of government. Some Members of this House will be old enough to remember the relationship between Dame Evelyn Sharp and Richard Crossman which was famously bitterly hostile. We do not want to go back to that sort of hostile arrangement again.

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Baroness Prashar (Crossbench)

My Lords, the explanatory note by the Civil Service Commission clearly states the appropriate involvement of Ministers in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries. It clearly indicates that it has not crossed the line that would in any way jeopardise the impartiality of our Civil Service. Does the Minister accept that the current Administration hold the Civil Service in trust for the next Administration and that nothing must be done to in any way jeopardise its impartiality? I was quite concerned to read the comments of Francis Maude when he said he was determined to increase the involvement of Ministers in appointments. In asking this question, I declare that I was a Civil Service Commissioner from 2000 to 2005 and had to resist similar efforts by the previous Administration.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the Prime Minister in speaking to the Liaison Committee in July made clear that he holds very strongly to the Northcote-Trevelyan principles. But one has to modernise to some extent and going further into his speech I was interested by his talking about the gradual opening up of the question of accountability. We are talking about Civil Service accountability to Ministers but also ministerial and official accountability to Parliament. There are some interesting long-term issues here which we need to discuss further. To quote him again:

"I would like to see a gradual opening up of this accountability, with Ministers being given more discretion about permanent secretary appointments, and Select Committees being able to see more civil servants, particularly on implementation and major project issues. Those would be sensible reforms. Let's do that and see how that works before taking another leap".

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Lord Wright of Richmond (Crossbench)

My Lords, there was a brief discussion on Radio 4 this morning about whether we should follow the American precedent of fracking oil shale. Does the Minister agree that to follow the other American precedent of politicising the senior branches of the public service would seriously undermine the recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853 for a permanent Civil Service which, I suggest, has done this country and Ministers a considerable benefit since then?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I entirely agree with that. I felt that Sue Cameron's article in the Telegraph this morning, clearly based on some rather hostile briefing by, I suspect, retired civil servants, goes enormously over the top in suggesting that ambassadorships were about to be given to donors. We have after all in the past occasionally had political appointments to ambassadorships. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was one and very successful. There was also Peter Jay and Christopher, Lord Soames. We have held to the principles of Northcote-Trevelyan on political impartiality and we will continue to do so.

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Lord Strathclyde (Conservative)

My Lords, we have time. I think it is probably my noble friend Lord Tyler first and then the Labour Party.

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Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, my noble friend has touched on the relationship of Ministers to Parliament. I wonder if he would just reinforce and reiterate the point that all Permanent Secretaries are answerable and accountable to Parliament for the whole of their departments, including of course the performance of the head and leadership of that department. Has he noted the suggestion that Permanent Secretaries might be subjected to confirmatory hearings by departmental Select Committees? Would he confirm that it is the Government's view that, in this relationship, it is the Secretary of State to the department that is responsible to Parliament? So would it not be more appropriate for the Secretary of State on appointment to be subjected to a confirmatory hearing?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

I will duck answering that question. The question of Civil Service accountability to Parliament is one of those issues now in play which does raise some very large and long-term issues and will need much further debate.

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Lord Soley (Labour)

I find a lack of clarity in the Minister's reply. What many of us are looking for, following the comments by Francis Maude, is a very clear statement that Ministers will not be able to override the normal negotiations that take place and insist on having the Permanent Secretary they want, because that politicises it. At the moment, disagreements are usually resolved by discussion between the Civil Service and the Minister. If we have a situation, which Francis Maude seems to want, of Ministers insisting on having their civil servant, then that politicises it. Certainly what I am looking for-and I think many other people are looking for-is a clear statement from a Government Minister that it is not going to happen.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

Let me be as clear as I can. The panel is asked to interview those who have applied. It ranks those whom it considers to be above the line in terms of being appointable or not. The issue at stake is whether the Secretary of State, and behind him the Prime Minister and the head of the Civil Service, can change the order of those who are ranked above the line. I recall that, until two years ago, the Prime Minister was able to change the order of those recommended as Archbishop of Canterbury-and on occasion did so, as Margaret Thatcher once famously did. The suggestion that Secretaries of State should not be allowed to at least consider the ranking of those above the line and accepted as appointable by the panel is one that that we should consider further.

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Lord King of Bridgwater (Conservative)

I am not aware of any complaint from our side of the House about the selection that Mr Jack Straw made on a short list of three which he insisted on having, for which he perfectly properly said that he took final responsibility for his department. Are not those Permanent Secretaries, having been appointed, also entitled to expect that the person who makes the final decision stays in office for slightly more than one year? In the case of both the previous Government and the present Government, can we see a little bit more continuity in Ministers than we have had in recent years?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

The current Government have been doing their best to provide rather greater continuity, particularly in the Ministry of Defence, than the last Government. One has to recognise that this is a difficult relationship. A very good friend of mine who was a senior official under the last Government said to me that if you want to be a senior official with this sort of Government-and he was talking about the last Government-you need always to have in the back of your mind that you could move somewhere else. It is a delicate relationship. We hold to the principles of a permanent Civil Service, but there is unavoidable tension between a Permanent Secretary and a Secretary of State-just as there is in a company between the chief executive and the chairman.