UK Politics

Give No 10 more say over top civil service jobs, says Labour

Whitehall sign
Image caption At the moment, the First Civil Service Commissioner recommends nominees to Downing Street

Labour has said Downing Street should have more say in the hiring of top civil servants, to boost accountability.

The opposition said the prime minister should be able to choose permanent secretaries for individual departments from a shortlist of candidates drawn up by an independent body.

The government already backs the idea of giving ministers such a choice.

And the prime minister already gets the final say over the appointments.

'Merit-based'

At the moment, the independent Civil Service Commission recommends a single nominee to No 10 after an open recruitment process and following consultation with the relevant secretary of state.

But senior Conservatives have long argued for stronger ministerial involvement, including allowing ministers to interview candidates and for No 10 to be able to choose from a selection of candidates deemed to be "above the line" by an independent panel.

Labour are now backing similar proposals in which the prime minister would make the final decision from a list of "appointable candidates" drawn up by the commission.

In a speech to the Institute for Government think tank, shadow cabinet office minister Michael Dugher said that he believed this model would be more "accountable and effective".

"My view is that ministers should have more involvement in the appointment of permanent secretaries," he said.

"Ministers are rightly held accountable to Parliament for the performance of their departments, so it is our view that it is only right that they should have a stronger say in the most important recruitment decision in their departments.

'Fear or favour'

Mr Dugher said impartiality must remain a bedrock of the civil service, with officials able to give ministers advice without "fear and favour" and being bound by the Civil Service Code.

"Of course, there must still be a rigorous merit-based assessment preceding the exercise of ministerial choice," he added.

"But with the proposed strict procedures around ministerial involvement in appointments, I cannot see any increased risk of politicisation."

Earlier this year, the Civil Service Commission decided against changing its recruitment principles to give No 10 the choice where two candidates for top posts were judged to be of the same merit.

After a public consultation, it decided to stick with its existing rules, citing what it said were concerns among MPs on the Commons Public Administration Select Committee about any changes in advance of a more root-and-branch review of the functions of the Civil Service.

But the body said it retained an "open mind" and would be willing to think again if there was a change in what it described as the "political consensus" in Parliament.

Key priorities

The Cabinet Office recently announced that all-male shortlists and interview panels for the most senior civil service jobs would be banned in future, except under special circumstances.

In his speech, Mr Dugher said he backed some of the Civil Service changes introduced by the coalition government, such as the establishment of a Major Projects Authority to oversee the largest projects and publishing the performance objectives of permanent secretaries.

But he said action was needed to address what he claimed was a sense of drift in Whitehall.

"It is clear that departments are now substantially less scrutinised and less held to account than before 2010," he added.

"To get things back on track, Labour will introduce reforms to set up a new delivery and performance regime at the heart of government to drive through key priorities, ensure better coordination and bring in more commercial expertise."

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