UK Politics

Politically neutral civil service 'in peril', warns Labour

Francis Maude
Image caption Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude says the plans will make top officials more accountable

Labour has criticised plans to give ministers more say in top civil service appointments, accusing the government of putting the impartiality of the civil service in "peril".

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath accused the Cabinet Office of "bullying" the body overseeing Whitehall appointments.

The Civil Service Commission has said recruitment to top jobs must be left to an independent selection panel.

But ministers have not ruled out a new law to over-rule the commission.

At question time in the House of Lords, Lord Hunt, the deputy leader of Labour peers, said Cabinet Office Minister France Maude was "essentially bullying the Civil Service Commission and threatening new legislation in order to give secretaries of state the power to appoint permanent secretaries".

The permanent secretary is the top official in a government department.

He asked Cabinet Office spokesman Lord Wallace of Saltaire: "Why is the government going down that route? Don't you accept that you are putting the political neutrality of the civil service at peril?"

Lord Wallace pointed out that the prime minister already had the power to veto the independent panel's choice of permanent secretary.

Other ministers were able to exercise "significant influence" over the appointments process under current rules, he added.

'Considerable benefit'

"The relationship between a minister and his or her permanent secretary is clearly key to the effective working of government," he said, describing criticism of the plans as "enormously over the top".

He highlighted support for the move from former Labour secretary of state Jack Straw, who once told the House of Commons he had not been subjected to accusations of cronyism when he insisted that he pick his permanent secretaries from a shortlist.

Lord Jenkin of Roding, a former Conservative industry secretary, said he had by-passed the appointments process entirely in the early 1980s and installed his own choice of department head.

"A minister's involvement in this is absolutely essential," he remarked.

But former senior diplomat Lord Wright of Richmond urged the government not to "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".

A former Civil Service Commissioner, crossbench peer Baroness Prashar, said she was "concerned" by Mr Maude's proposals, since "the current administration holds the civil service in trust for the next administration".

"Nothing must be done to in any way jeopardise its impartiality," she added.

Lord Wallace said Prime Minister David Cameron had made it clear he held to the Northcote-Trevelyan principles.

But the peer added: "One does have to modernise to some extent."

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