Select Committee on Constitution Second Report


CHAPTER 5: CROWN SERVICE: THE CIVIL SERVICE AFTER DEVOLUTION

149. There is no doubt that devolution represented a major organisational challenge for the civil service. It has dramatically altered both the working environment and the workload of many thousands of officials, not just in the devolved administrations but also in UK Departments that deal with the devolved administrations. Within the devolved administrations it called for considerable re-organisation and restructuring, a process that continues.[124] It meant adapting to working with a large number of Ministers based locally, rather than a small number of Ministers who spent most of their time in London. It also required officials to adapt to working with coalition administrations rather than a Westminster government composed of a single party. Many of the Ministers and politicians from whom we heard were keen to emphasise how smooth a change devolution had been. That this was the case was due to the professionalism, dedication and hard work of many officials in both the devolved administrations and the UK Government. We feel that this element has not been sufficiently noted and wish to pay tribute to all the civil servants involved for their contribution to the process of devolution.

150. So far as Scotland and Wales are concerned, the civil service remains a UK matter.[125] In relation to Northern Ireland the situation is more complex, as Northern Ireland retains its own civil service under the control of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but the functions of the Civil Service Commissions for Northern Ireland remain a reserved matter and therefore subject, ultimately, to UK control.[126] Thus senior figures such as the Permanent Secretaries to the Scottish Executive or National Assembly for Wales, or the National Assembly's Counsel-General, are appointed (at least formally) by the UK Prime Minister.[127]

151. Although the formal position is that the civil service remains a UK matter, in practice, things work somewhat differently. In common with UK Government departments, the Scottish Executive and National Assembly for Wales have considerable autonomy in staffing matters, extending to levels of staffing, promotions and grading, and pay settlements. A single framework governing the whole of the Home Civil Service only arises for the highest reaches of the Home Civil Service - the Senior Civil Service.[128] The Scottish and Welsh devolved administrations consequently have considerable room for manoeuvre in developing staffing policies and arrangements that are appropriate to their local needs, within the framework of the Home Civil Service. Neither of the Permanent Secretaries of the Scottish Executive or National Assembly for Wales expressed any dissatisfaction with this in their evidence to us.[129]

152. One anomaly that arises from the framework of devolution in Wales is that all officials working for the National Assembly - whether for the Welsh Assembly Government side of the Assembly or the Presiding Office side - are civil servants. That means that the Clerk of the Assembly is (at least formally) appointed by the UK Prime Minister and managed by the Permanent Secretary; and legal advice to Assembly Members and the Presiding Office is provided (at least in part) by the Counsel-General, whose main task is to advise the Welsh Assembly Government.[130] All this reflects the fact that the National Assembly was designed to be a quite different sort of institution from the one it has now become. While we note that all involved said that the tensions that might arise from such arrangements had not in fact arisen, we consider that it could become a source of difficulty - especially if relations between Assembly Members in general and the Welsh Assembly Government were not good, for example if a minority administration were to be in office once again.

153. The situation in Northern Ireland is somewhat different, as the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) has been a distinct service since 1921. That service provides the staff of the Northern Ireland Departments, the staff of the bodies responsible for services such as health and social services, or of the education and library boards. The NICS also provides a significant proportion of the staff of the Northern Ireland Office. Many civil servants working in Northern Ireland are not members of the NICS, however - for example, staff of the Inland Revenue are members of the Home Civil Service rather than NICS.[131]

154. As far as the Home Civil Service is concerned, one change occasioned by devolution was to amend the Civil Service Code. This now provides that "civil servants owe their loyalty to the Administrations in which they serve", Administration meaning the UK Government, Scottish Executive or National Assembly for Wales.[132] This was designed expressly to address the concern that officials' loyalty might be affected by the fact that they remain part of a single Home Civil Service. With a career progression that ends in London, we can understand that concerns may exist about the loyalty of civil servants.

SPECIAL ADVISERS ACROSS THE UK

155. In both Scotland and Wales, special advisers work for the centre of government rather than individual Ministers, and are limited in number. In Scotland the number is limited to 12, though there have never been more than 10 or 11 at once. Each has subject responsibilities, and two work for the Deputy First Minister (the Liberal Democrat leader) and the others for the First Minister. Their functions have changed over time, but have included presentation work as well as policy development and speech-writing.[133] In Wales there are six special advisers, two for the Liberal Democrats (although one post was vacant) and four for Labour. They were appointed following an open recruitment exercise and work within the newly-established Strategic Policy Unit, alongside permanent civil servants (but without being able to give instructions to the civil servants). They attend the Assembly's Executive Board as well as providing political advice to Ministers.[134] In Northern Ireland there are 16 special advisers in total, one per Departmental Minister and three each for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, again unable to give instructions to permanent officials.[135]

ONE CIVIL SERVICE OR SEVERAL?

156. The question underpinning this part of our inquiry was the appropriateness of retaining a single Home Civil Service for officials in Scotland and Wales as well as the UK Government. Despite the provision in the Civil Service Code noted above, some observers doubt whether this would be sufficient to eliminate such concerns altogether if the political circumstances became highly charged or contentious.[136]

157. The advantages of a single Home Civil Service were presented in evidence by various officials.[137] First, it serves as a guarantor of impartiality against politicians who might seek to co-opt or undermine it, because members of the devolved institutions do not have the power to interfere with it. Impartiality is a central and necessary dimension of the civil service and has been a feature since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms more than 130 years ago. Officials are able to serve ministers loyally but without bias, an attribute variously attested to by ministers in different administrations.

158. Second, it serves as a "brand": it guarantees recognition of officials as belonging to a common service, politically impartial and recruited on merit, that enables those officials to deal with each other as belonging to the same profession no matter whom they work for.[138] The brand acknowledges the value of diversity, and a common service facilitates comprehensive and co-ordinated action to make progress in this field.[139] The Civil Service brand is thus a well established one, appreciated by officials and recognised by others well beyond the civil service itself.

159. Third, it enables ready interchange of staff, giving officials access to a broad range of experience and expertise from various different parts of the civil service. The main recipients of staff exchanges from the devolved administrations appear to be their counterpart offices in Whitehall - about 88% of the Northern Ireland Office staff are from the NICS, and the great majority of those in the Scotland and Wales Offices.[140] Only 17 Scottish Executive officials work in other parts of Whitehall and five from the National Assembly for Wales are in Whitehall beyond the Wales Office. Smaller numbers of staff from UK Government departments have spent time in the Scottish Executive or National Assembly.[141] Fewer staff from the NICS seem to be involved in such exchanges.[142] The value of such exchanges extends beyond the individuals directly involved.

160. Fourth, it links officials in a broader context, enabling devolved administration officials (especially at the most senior levels) to participate in civil service-wide initiative, and to draw on a wider range of experience from officials across the Civil Service. The degree of linkage was apparent from the evidence given to us. We note, for example, the importance attached by the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Executive to taking part in Civil Service Management Board meetings.[143]

161. Finally, and as a consequence of the other factors, it enables close working across government generally and the ready flow of information from one administration to another.

162. We readily recognise that these are powerful and, in many respects, compelling arguments. We are aware that counter-arguments can be advanced. The need for a single civil service to maintain neutrality, for example, assumes implicitly that such independence is threatened in the context of the devolved administrations but not in the case of the UK Government. Moreover, there is no inherent reason to assume that small services are prone to losing such impartiality - that of the NICS is unquestioned, even in a perenially difficult political situation.[144] This argument also assumes that the safeguards of independence that presently operate for officials serving in the UK Government - notably the professionalism of officials themselves and the supervisory role of the Civil Service Commissioners - would not apply equally to devolved administration officials.

163. Regarding the value of the civil service "brand", it could be argued that this is largely a matter of shared professional skills, approach and training. These are skills that officials can recognise in each other whenever they come across each other, in whatever setting. There appears to be no difference between the Home Civil Service and the Northern Ireland Civil Service in that respect.[145].

164. Third, it is clear that while staff interchange is important, it is limited in scale. The extent to which the existence of a single service facilitates that interchange is rather limited.

165. Fourth, we note the value attached to participation in a broader civil service by many of our civil service witnesses - the sense of belonging to a wider organisation than the immediate one in which an individual works. This, though, does not require the membership of a single civil service - the Head of the NICS noted he is invited to those meetings too, though he rarely attends.[146]

166. The fifth factor - enabling clear communication between officials - is also something that does not necessarily depend on retaining a single civil service. Provided there were good contacts between public services, communications of the sort presently enjoyed could be maintained.

167. A more serious objection to change in the status of the civil service would be the sense of detachment or semi-detachment from the rest of the UK that we detected in Northern Ireland. The NICS is neither as closely connected with the Home Civil Service as the Scottish Executive or National Assembly are, nor as concerned by management issues that are priorities within the Home Civil Service. However, the NICS works as it does because of long-standing administrative devolution in Northern Ireland. It has operated since 1921, through devolution to the Stormont Parliament and direct rule as well as under the arrangements established by the Belfast Agreement. It functions as it does because the way government works in Northern Ireland is different from that obtaining in other parts of the UK.

168. The effects of devolution may in the long term create significant pressures for the ending of a single civil service, with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales wanting their own distinct civil services. We recognise that the time may come for change. However, we also recognise the advantages that flow from the retention of a single Home Civil Service. Given the pressures that may result from administrations of different political persuasions existing in the UK, the case for a single civil service has so far, in our view, strengthened rather than weakened.

169. We believe that the advantages that flow from having a single Home Civil Service are such as to justify the retention of a single Home Civil Service and we recommend accordingly.


124   See evidence of Sir Muir Russell, 15 May 2002, Q. 455-56; evidence of Mr (now Sir) J. Shortridge and Mr W. Roddick QC, 28 May 2002, QQ 1000-01, 1009, 1016; evidence of Mr R. Parry, 17 May 2002, QQ 603-04.  Back

125   Scotland Act 1998, s. 51 and Schedule 5, para. 8; Government of Wales Act 1998, s. 34.  Back

126   Northern Ireland Act 1998, s. 23 (3) and Schedule 3, para. 16. Back

127   Evidence of Mr J. Shortridge, 28 May 2002, Q. 1026.  Back

128   Evidence of Sir Muir Russell KCB, 15 May 2002, Q. 457; memorandum by Mr R. Parry, evidence volume, paras 10-11 and evidence of Mr R. Parry, 17 May 2002, Q. 618; evidence of Mr J. Shortridge, 28 May 2002, Q. 1004; evidence of Sir Richard Wilson, KCB, 26 June 2002, Q. 131.  Back

129   Evidence of Mr J. Shortridge, 28 May 2002, Q. 1026.  Back

130   Evidence of Mr J. Shortridge, 28 May 2002, QQ 1002-03; evidence of Mr P. Silk, 27 May 2002, Q. 924; evidence of Mr W. Roddick QC, 28 May 2002, Q. 1009.  Back

131   Evidence of Mr G. Loughran, 10 June 2002, Q. 1198.  Back

132   The Civil Service Code, para. 2. The NICS has a separate Code of Ethics which substantially mirrors the Code.  Back

133   Evidence of Sir M. Russell KCB, 15 May 2002, QQ 461-64, QQ 476-80.  Back

134   Evidence of Mr J. Shortridge, 28 May 2002, Q. 1006, QQ 1011-14.  Back

135   Evidence of Mr G. Loughran, 10 June 2002, QQ 1216-17.  Back

136   Evidence of Professor R. Hazell, 10 July 2002, Q. 1441. See also evidence of Mr R. Parry, 17 May 2002, Q. 614.  Back

137   Evidence of Sir R. Wilson GCB, 26 June 2002; evidence of Mr P. Unwin, Mr W. Jeffrey, Mr I. Gordon and Mrs A. Jackson, 20 March 2002, QQ 137-40; evidence of the Rt Hon. H. Liddell MP, the Rt Hon. P. Murphy MP and the Rt Hon. Dr J. Reid MP, 10 April 2002, QQ 195-96.  Back

138   The term 'brand' is Sir Muir Russell's; evidence of Sir M. Russell, 15 May 2002, Q. 458.  Back

139   Diversity is one of six key objectives of the Civil Service reform programme which the Civil Service in Scotland and Wales have signed up to. See evidence of Sir R. Wilson GCB, 26 June 2002, Q. 1327. Back

140   Evidence of the Rt Hon. H. Liddell MP, the Rt Hon. P. Murphy MP and the Rt Hon. Dr J. Reid MP, 10 April 2002, QQ 195-96.  Back

141   Evidence of Sir R. Wilson GCB, 26 June 2002, Q. 1340. See also evidence of Sir M. Russell KCB, 15 May 2002, QQ 466-71. Back

142   Evidence of Mr G. Loughran, 10 June 2002, QQ 1196, 1198, 1203, 1205 and 1224. The 'constitutional difficulties' referred to by Mr Loughran are believed to relate to arrangements to secure fair employment in the public service in Northern Ireland.  Back

143   Evidence of Sir M. Russell, 15 May 2002, Q. 494;  Back

144   Evidence of Mr G. Loughran, 10 June 2002, Q. 1207.  Back

145   Evidence of Mr R. Parry, 17 May 2002, Q. 607.  Back

146   Evidence of Mr G. Loughran, 10 June 2002, Q. 1196.  Back


 
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