Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 548-559)




  548. We are delighted to have as a witness this morning Baroness Prashar, who is the First Civil Service Commissioner. We have asked her to come and talk about our public appointments inquiry, but I am sure we are going to range more widely over Civil Service issues. Thank you very much for coming. Would you like to say a few words by way of introduction?

  (Baroness Prashar) I would very much welcome that. Can I first say I am very grateful that you should invite me to give this evidence. I am very pleased to be here. What I want to do in my opening remarks is to say a little bit about the role of the Civil Service Commissioners and what I have been trying to do since I have been in post for the last 18 months. I recognise that you are looking at public appointments and patronage, but I think it would be helpful at the outset if I say something about the role of the Commissioners. As you are aware, the Commissioners were a creation of the 19th century, a response to the problem of patronage, very much the subject of your inquiry, which had been identified as one of the main reasons for the Service's endemic inefficiency and public disrepute. So it was that from the outset the role of the Commissioners was not so much about regulation but as a process of ensuring an efficient Civil Service, fit for purpose and respected by the public, a role that it shares with the government of the day. The Commissioners today continue that long tradition. Successive Orders in Council may have adjusted our specific responsibilities, but the Commissioners remain independent of the Civil Service and ministers. We alone have responsibility for interpreting the principle of selection on merit, after fair and open competition, for all Civil Service recruitment, for ensuring through audit that it is applied at low levels and for specifically approving appointments to the most senior posts in the Civil Service. We are not just concerned with recruitment, because at the beginning of 1996 we were given a further role, which is to hear and determine appeals in cases of concern about propriety and conscience raised by civil servants under the Civil Service Code which cannot be resolved in internal procedures, and to report on such appeals made to us. To date, we have determined only four appeals. In all four we found in full or in part for the appellant. More recently, under the terms of the Special Advisers' Code, civil servants may also appeal to me, the First Commissioner, if they believe that the action of a Special Adviser goes beyond the Adviser's authority or breaches the Civil Service Code. As I said, I have been in post for the last 18 months, but it might help you to know that I was a part-time Commissioner from 1990-95, so when I took this job I came with a pretty clear agenda of what I wanted to achieve. My objective was to make the role of the Commissioners relevant to the modern-day requirements of the Civil Service and the reform which was initiated in 1999, yet to retain the core values of appointment to the Civil Service on merit through fair and open competition. I do believe that the reform programme's aim—to bring in new talent and increase diversity—is very important and necessary, because the Civil Service does need to change and evolve to meet the needs of a modern society. I also believe that, amidst all the changes, it is equally important to uphold the basic principles of recruitment, not because they are there, but because they have a timeless quality and enduring value. Despite their 19th century origin, in my view, they do in the 21st century provide a very sound and flexible basis for the reform agenda. If the Civil Service is to be equipped to meet the objectives of the reform agenda, it must be able to guarantee that its members have been recruited for their skills and ability to do the job, and that is on merit, and merit alone, I am sure you will agree, is a very modern concept. Equally important is the concept of fair and open competition, because assurance that selection is by fair and open competition is just as necessary to protect the rights of candidates as it is in providing the best candidate for the job. Very briefly, I would like to take you through what steps I have taken since my appointment to increase the effectiveness of our role. One of the first things I did was to appoint new Commissioners. They were appointed for the first time through fair and open competition. They come from diverse backgrounds and have very diverse experience and expertise, and they were, of course, given a very comprehensive induction to increase their effectiveness. We are now a team which I believe will carry more authority and add value to the recruitment process by bringing different perspectives and expertise. It is through our commitment and professionalism that we uphold the principles and ensure that the best possible person is appointed. We have also been engaged in very active dialogue with Departments in order to get a shared and common understanding of their needs. Our role is to identify how best we can contribute to the reform agenda. Through this dialogue we have also been encouraging Departments to start thinking of recruitment much more comprehensively, that is, to identify needs, scope the jobs early on, talk to all the stakeholders, think through the whole process at the outset before developing job descriptions and person specifications, and of course, that also involves discussions about the right pay, encouraging them to work harder to get the right talent to apply and work to realistic timetables. We have also set up a process to provide structured feedback to Departments on recruitment, because we believe that the experience we gain we need to feed back into Departments to improve their processes. We have also been working with the Civil Service Management Board and the Cabinet Office on recruitment principles and their interpretation, and recently we sent out new guidance to Departments. To support this work we have set up internal groups, and we have been looking at first principles on how we interpret what is merit and what is fair and open competitions, and I think that informs the way we advise Departments. These are some of the initiatives that we have undertaken, but also, on the other side, we have given some preliminary consideration to the implications of a possible Civil Service Act, and have attempted to influence the debate. We believe there is a need to reaffirm the traditional recruitment principles of appointment on merit after fair and open competition, which, as I said earlier, remain entirely relevant to current-day needs. I think there is also a need to review the contents of the various Civil Service Codes and to provide greater clarity. There is also the need for better mechanisms for civil servants to lodge an appeal to the Commissioners where there is a prima facie reason for thinking that one or the other code is being infringed, or, possibly, for the Commissioners to make inquiries if there are reasonable grounds for concern that the various codes are not being observed. We also believe that a Civil Service Act would place the role and the character of the Civil Service more directly under the oversight of Parliament and would thereby provide assurance of its continued impartiality and core values at a time of reform and change.

  549. There are many questions that you can help us with that we are having trouble getting our minds around. One that I would like you to help us with immediately is the question of what "the Crown" is. In your note here you say that the Commissioners are appointed directly by the Crown. What is the Crown?
  (Baroness Prashar) It is a historical term, I suspect, but I presume it is an appointment by royal prerogative, by the Queen. This is to make sure that we are independent.

  550. The Queen did not appoint you, did she? This is a little tale we tell ourselves, is it not?
  (Baroness Prashar) I have to say I have never paid attention to that, because what I pay attention to is the fact that we are independent and regulated by the Order of Council. I am not a constitutional lawyer so I am afraid I cannot throw any more light on that.

  551. You see it written down, "appointed directly by the Crown", but of course, it is absolute nonsense, is it not?
  (Baroness Prashar) If you take it literally, it may appear nonsense, but I think what it really means is that we are independent of civil servants and we are not part of the government. It is to make sure that we act independently.

  552. Let me put it differently: "They report annually on their work to the Queen." Do you mean you go round to the Palace with your Annual Report and sit down and have a chat about it?
  (Baroness Prashar) This may amuse you, and it amused me. When I became a part-time Commissioner in 1990 that used to be the case, I am afraid. The report was published, and it used to be a treat for the Secretary working to the First Commissioner then to actually go round to the Palace to personally take the report. It does not happen now, but it is a report that is published and given to the Queen. If you look at the report, it actually does say that. I have a copy here: "To Her Majesty the Queen."

  553. I am sure these are fascinating conversations that go on, but I noticed that in this very nice speech that you made on these matters in the House of Lords last week you were suggesting, it seemed, that instead of all this nonsense, you really wanted to be accountable to Parliament.
  (Baroness Prashar) Let me clarify. That is not what I intended to say. It is important that we remain independent, and I think there are ways in which that can be done. If you look at the Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority for example, he is independent, and therefore the appointment is made by royal prerogative. What I think would be important is that when our reports are published, or if we were given further powers, our reports could be scrutinised by a Parliamentary Select Committee. In other words, what we do can be reported to Parliament. That is the way I would like to see it.

  554. If it were reported to Parliament, for example, we could routinely ask you questions about these things. What is extraordinary is that this is the first time we have seen you. Is this not because you report to the Queen?
  (Baroness Prashar) It is extraordinary, but I think even now you can see me, and I am sure any Select Committee could call me, because it seems to me that what we do should be of interest to Parliament, and therefore what is in a report should be questioned by Parliament. But somehow we need a mechanism which ensures that we remain independent.

  555. I see this report of the interview in The Times with the new Cabinet Secretary talks about "a marked departure from the approach of his predecessor." I am intrigued by the fact that you were one of those who interviewed him for this job. Did you ask him if he was going to display a markedly different approach from his predecessor, including to things like Civil Service legislation?
  (Baroness Prashar) I do not think it would be right for me to go into the kind of interview questions that were asked of all the candidates who were interviewed by the panel. Obviously, questions would have been asked about how they would do the job. We made recommendations to the Prime Minister. Also, I should make my involvement in that process clear. Although I am the First Civil Service Commissioner, as you know, we only chair competitions which go to open competition, which go outside. Internal competitions are not chaired by me. I was involved, I suspect, to ensure the integrity of the process.

  556. I am not trying to be tricky, but knowing what you believe about the need for Civil Service legislation to protect these core values in statute, it would be extraordinary if in interviewing a prospective Cabinet Secretary you did not ask whether his view of the world was similar to yours.
  (Baroness Prashar) I think it would not be right for me to go into the detail of the questions asked.

  557. I do not want to go into the detail; I just want broad brush.
  (Baroness Prashar) If you are really asking whether that was one of the criteria in terms of the recommendations, as you know, there are different views. Not everybody believes that there should be a Civil Service Act. Some say that we have managed for the last 150 years without an Act and we can continue to do that. For my part, I have not come round to my view now. As I said, I was a part-time Commissioner, and therefore I have a longer view, and I have felt for a long time that it would be helpful to have a Civil Service Act. I think that Orders in Council can be changed without any reference to Parliament, and it seems to me that we need to enshrine the constitutional position and, its impartiality in a statute, so that any changes that take place on the constitutional aspect should not be done without reference to Parliament. The Civil Service exists for the public interest. That is not to say that one would want to inhibit the evolution, development and the reform of the Civil Service. That is why I am of the view that we need a piece of legislation which is narrowly defined, which does not get involved in the management issues, but is purely confined to the constitutional position of the Civil Service.

  558. You say that some people say we have managed without an Act for 150 years. In fact, those are precisely the words used by Sir Andrew Turnbull in the Times interview. I quote: "We have lived without one for 150 years." Clearly, that view is different from the view you are expressing, and I just think you probably would have tested him on this.
  (Baroness Prashar) As I said, the Civil Service Commissioners are an independent body, and we have a perspective from what we do, and I think we are entitled to have an independent view. It does not necessarily have to be in tune with everybody.

Mr Trend

  559. Can I go back to the question of the royal prerogative. When you were appointed, how was that done? Who interviewed, selected, went through the files, made the decision and exercised the prerogative?

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