Government formation post-election - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

5  Civil Service support to political parties in post-election discussions

68. Following the result of the 2010 election, the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, offered Civil Service support for negotiations to form a government to all political parties on the same basis. In the event, however, the civil service provided only very limited support for the negotiations that took place. The support provided to the parties is subject to the approval of the Prime Minister[51] and we were told by the Cabinet Secretary that after the 2015 election "he [the Prime Minister] has agreed in principle that the Civil Service should play the same role in 2015, if it is needed, as was played in 2010."[52]

69. The current Cabinet Secretary outlined what he thought the role of the civil service should be during the period of uncertainty after a general election:

    from my perspective, as head of the civil service, the civil service's role is to support the incumbent Government of the day in the essential Government of Britain, but otherwise to remain completely impartial. In the Government formation, the civil service's role is to be providing logistical support, to provide factual advice, but not to try to sway the coalition discussions in one direction or another. We are impartial when it comes to that because that is an issue for the elected politicians.[53]

How best to facilitate discussions

70. Given the UK has what the Institute for Government describes as an "unordered process of Government formation"[54] there are no rules parties that must follow when they enter into negotiations. In a situation after the election where there is no overall majority in the House, it might not become clear immediately which parties will be involved in trying to form a government and what that government might look like.

71. It has been debated whether the civil service should simply supply factual information to political parties or offer advice on proposed policies. Professor Hazell suggests that the civil service could offer the following support:

·  Provision of accommodation and refreshments;

·  Note takers, who can summarise the issues which have been agreed and what remains outstanding;

·  The provision of factual information;

·  The provision of advice.[55]

He does, however, recognise that "The last item is controversial: most commentators would prefer the civil service not to go beyond answering requests for factual information."[56]

72. When we questioned the Cabinet Secretary on what type of information they would supply to parties to the negotiations, he told us:

    [T]he advice provided should be essentially of a factual nature, rather than a policy advice nature, if I can put it like that. We would be very happy to supply information on the cost of something or the legislative requirements of something or the timetable required to do something in practical terms.[57]

73. Professor Hazell argued that any logistical and factual support should come with some advice, otherwise negotiating parties might not know in reality how practical their policies would be implement. He said:

    I think it is in the public interest that the negotiators be as fully informed as possible about the different issues that they are negotiating on. […] Issues will arise where the negotiators want to ask: what will this cost? How long will this take? Will we run into legal difficulties? Those sound like factual questions and they can be put in that way but, as I said in my submission, to get sensible answers, the answers will come, I hope, couched with a bit of advice.[58]

The Cabinet Secretary remained reluctant to give out policy advice as it could lead to the civil service looking like they favoured the policy of one party over another. He told us:

    [A]s soon as you get sucked into a discussion not about factual advice but about policy advice, then indeed, you are effectively being asked to provide advice against policies as well as in favour of them. I think you could easily find yourself in a position where your position could be caricatured as favouring one party or one coalition over another, and that would not be the right place for the civil service, which has to be impartial, has to be able to serve Governments of whatever complexion, and should not be criticisable for favouring one coalition or another. That would be totally against our ethos as a civil service.[59]

74. If there is no conclusive result to the election, we do not believe that Prime Ministerial approval should be required for civil service support to post-election discussions. If there is agreement among parties involved in the negotiations that they require support it should be given. The next version of the Cabinet Manual should be updated to reflect this view.

75. From the outset the civil service should be ready to provide factual information to all parties involved in Government formation negotiations.

76. To avoid any impression that the civil service might favour one party's policy over another, any advice to the individual parties should be given on a confidential basis.

Impartial advice on equal basis

77. If one party in negotiations asks for information on a specific issue, the question arises of whether or not that advice should be offered as a matter of course to all of the other parties involved. Robert Hazell argued that:

    The key safeguard is that any information or advice is supplied to all the parties involved in that set of negotiations; and that the parties know when they request the information that it will be shared on that basis.[60]

78. According to Dr Catherine Haddon from the Institute for Government, a different approach was taken during the 2010 negotiations. She told us that the guidance issued by the civil service:

    sets out what should happen in the event that one party asks for a piece of factual information on policy X. If another party does not ask for that same piece of information, it does not get it, nor does it even know that the first party has asked for it. If both do ask for it, they get the same piece of advice, supposedly. There is clearly an expectation there that they would have quite strict convention and guidance around what constitutes advice.[61]

79. The Cabinet Secretary did not think that issuing unsolicited information to all parties would be suitable. He said:

    I do not think we would want in any sense to be leading the witness in any way by suggesting, "Here is some information you have not asked for but we think you ought to have". We are there to provide advice on request.

    Of course, if it turns out that six out of seven parties have all asked for the same thing, then conceivably it might make sense just to produce a general note, but we are talking very hypothetically now. Basically, our task would be to provide advice of a factual nature to those parties that asked for it, and on a confidential basis, for whichever discussion is going on at that time.[62]

80. Should more than one party in negotiations require exactly the same information from the civil service, then exactly the same response should be issued to all of the parties who asked for it. Any information requested by one party should only be sent to other parties involved in the negotiations if all parties agree to this practice at the outset of the negotiation period.

51   The Cabinet Manual, Cabinet Office, October 2011, para 2.14 Back

52   Q129 [Sir Jeremy Heywood] Back

53   Q103 [Sir Jeremy Heywood] Back

54   Institute for Government (GFE 03), para 17 Back

55   Prof Robert Hazell (GFE04), para 4 Back

56   Prof Robert Hazell (GFE04), para 5 Back

57   Q131 [Sir Jeremy Heywood] Back

58   Q28 [Prof Robert Hazell] Back

59   Q136 [Sir Jeremy Heywood] Back

60   Prof Robert Hazell (GFE04), para 5 Back

61   Q29 [Dr Catherine Haddon] Back

62   Q133 [Sir Jeremy Heywood] Back

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Prepared 26 March 2015