Think tank has cross-party backing but some of its ideas are ‘incompatible with the law’

By on 18/03/2015 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Sir David Normington, Head of the Civil Service Commission

Radical proposals to reshape the British civil service have been deemed unlawful by the independent body overseeing civil service appointments.

New think tank GovernUp, which launched a set of wide-ranging reforms to the structures of the government at an event last month, has called for greater ministerial involvement in the appointment of civil servants.

It wants ministers to be able to appoint chief executives of delivery agencies as well as civil servants in ‘extended ministerial offices’.

The think tank has the backing of politicians from all three major parties: it is headed up by one Conservative MP – Nick Herbert – and a Labour MP – John Healey, with Liberal Democrat Lord Razzall among its members.

In its report, GovernUp writes that “each department should have a number of policy advisers – up to five in smaller departments and up to 10 in large departments – drawn from outside the civil service, from think tanks, academia, and sometimes from political parties’ own policy units; they would be politically restricted, but would leave office on a change of government.”

However, Sir David Normington, head of the Civil Service Commission, which oversees civil service appointments, warned GovernUp that the proposals would break the law.

In a letter sent to Herbert and Healey on 3 March, Normington wrote that “whether the proposals are desirable or publicly defensible, they are not compatible with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, [which is] clear that there are only two distinct types of government employee: special advisers, who are appointed personally by their minister and are not legally bound to act impartially and objectively; and civil servants who are appointed on merit after fair and open competition and must act with impartiality and objectivity.”

Enabling ministers to appoint any civil servants would mean these would no longer be “impartial in any sense of the word and certainly not in the sense required by the civil service code”.

While Normington said that, “of course the law can be changed”, he added that the proposals in its current form “cannot be shoehorned into the present legal framework”.

He also warned that the reforms would “create a class of people in government – possibly several hundred – who are personally appointed by the minister and either politically or personally aligned with him.”

Currently, the only civil service appointments with direct ministerial involvement are those of permanent secretaries – the most senior officials in charge of government departments.

Under the rules, which were introduced as recently as December 2014, the prime minister can pick a candidate from a shortlist put forward to him by the CSC.

The change was introduced under the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and overseen by Conservative cabinet office minister Francis Maude.

It was backed by Labour and the FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants.

Read also: Analysis: ideas for radical reforms to the British government

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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