Plan to let ministers pick top civil servants blocked

Whitehall An impartial civil service is seen as a key hallmark of the British system of government

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Plans to give ministers the power to choose who runs their department have been blocked, amid fears it could politicise the civil service.

The Civil Service Commission, which ensures appointments are made on merit, said ministers should be "fully involved" with the recruitment process.

But the final decision must rest with a selection panel to "safeguard a non-political civil service".

Ministers refused to rule out changing the law to implement their proposal.

The plans were outlined in June as part of a wide-ranging shake-up of the civil service intended to make it operate more like a business, with a more entrepreneurial culture.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said he wanted ministers to be allowed to choose their permanent secretary - the top official in a department - to make them more accountable.

'Not a personal choice'

But the Civil Service Commission, an independent statutory body which ensures recruitment to the civil service is on merit on the basis of fair and open competition, has rejected the plan because it could undermine the impartiality of the civil service.

This is seen as a key hallmark of the British system of government, in contrast to systems such as in the US, where top bureaucrats are political appointees.

The commission accepted ministers should have "significant influence on the appointment of senior civil servants with whom they work closely" and set out a number of ways in which they were already involved.

This includes consultation on the job specification, meeting short-listed candidates and providing feedback to the selection panel.

The relevant cabinet minister or the prime minister can also refuse to appoint the candidate chosen by the panel, although "they may not pick and choose between candidates".

Last month, David Cameron vetoed the appointment of climate change expert David Kennedy as permanent secretary at the Department for Climate Change and Energy.

'Essential balance'

The commission said the appointment of a new permanent secretary was "not a personal one; it is to a politically impartial civil service".

"Civil servants are bound by the civil service code to serve the government of the day whatever its political colour.

"Permanent secretaries may have to serve successive secretaries of state, with different personalities, and different political philosophies.

"This is why the final decision on who is the best candidate is made by the selection panel not the minister."

Sir David Normington, who heads the commission, said: "We have looked hard at how we might strengthen ministerial involvement.

"However, our practice stops short of allowing ministers to choose from a list of recommended candidates, requiring, as now, that the final recommendation of the best candidate should be made by the selection panel, drawing on all the evidence.

"In our view this maintains the essential balance between involving ministers fully in the process, while safeguarding a non-political civil service, selected on merit.''

Mr Maude said he was determined to strengthen the role of ministers in permanent secretary appointments and refused to rule out future legislation to implement his plan.

He said: "It would be perfectly possible under the legislation passed by Parliament in 2010 for the Civil Service Commission to provide ministers with a choice between appointable candidates. I am sorry that the commission has decided not to support this.

"These new changes that the commission have agreed are capable of significantly increasing ministerial involvement. We will wait to see how they are applied in practice before concluding that revisions to the legislation are not required."

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