Select Committee on Public Service Report



  419.    The changes in the Civil Service over the last thirty years, and particularly in the latter half of that period, have had the cumulative effect of substantially altering both the nature and the extent of the public sector. The Committee agrees with those witnesses who described the changes as radical and as a fundamental revolution in public administration. In later sections of this Report, we consider the effects of these changes on particular aspects of public administration and on the public service ethos. We address here our concerns about the approach which has been adopted towards changing the public service as a whole.

  420.    The question of what is the proper sphere of Government is one of fundamental importance which should be a matter of wide public debate. We accept the evidence given to us that in the last three decades there was little open or public debate about the extent of the structural changes being made to the Civil Service. The desirability of cross-party consensus in this area was stressed by Lord Callaghan of Cardiff during the debate in the House of Lords on the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services (HL Deb, 8.3.96 col. 546). The result is that, while justifications might be provided for each individual change, no overall strategy or set of guiding principles was worked out in advance. The absence of debate has led to some measure of confusion and doubt, and the Committee is not satisfied that the constitutional implications of the changes were fully thought through before the changes were introduced.

  421.    The Civil Service in the United Kingdom has been described as the envy of the world. We draw attention elsewhere in this Report to its special characteristics: lack of political bias, integrity, impartiality, objectivity, loyalty and freedom from corruption. There has in the last thirty years been a substantial reduction in the extent of operations which are carried out under the auspices of the Civil Service and in accordance with its ethos. Some of those operations are now carried out in whole or in part by companies in the private sector whose primary responsibility is to their shareholders. It may well be that they can provide a better service at lower cost, but the question whether a service should be provided by the traditional Civil Service only, or by public bodies to which powers are delegated or assigned, or by the private sector is not simply a matter of management and efficiency, it is a matter of public policy.

  422.    Dr Clark's proposals for the future seemed to be directed to greater efficiency. They were not, it seemed, related to the clarification of accountability, the preservation of the Civil Service ethos, or the protection of the unity of the Civil Service following the introduction of agencies or the devolution of arrangements for pay and conditions of service. It remains to be seen whether these issues are dealt with the forthcoming White Paper.

  423.    The issue of who should or should not be allowed to provide services in the public interest (and otherwise carry out the functions of Government) has become a matter of political debate. This is partly because the Government, when transferring functions from the public to the private sector, did not make clear which functions of Government they were seeking to relinquish and which to secure; nor did they offer any consistent rationale for the many ways in which Government responsibilities were being devolved and dispersed. Justifications for changes in the Civil Service were often couched in the language of efficiency, effectiveness, service and value for money. The concerns expressed about them tended to focus on responsibility and accountability. We therefore recommend that any significant change in the way in which public services are delivered should be subject to open debate, and that Governments should seek Parliament's views on prospective changes, even those changes which can be implemented using the Royal Prerogative, and without legislation, with a view to obtaining cross-party support.


The Problem of Classification (168-170)

  424.    This evidence reinforces our earlier conclusion that there has been little or no coherent rationale underlying the changes made in the Civil Service in recent years. The Committee acknowledges that different functions will always need to be carried out in different ways, with different degrees of Ministerial or other control. Nevertheless, in the absence of a codified constitution, it is particularly important that the public should understand how the public service works and what are the underlying strategy and guiding principles. As it is, the evidence is that it baffles even some experts.

  425.    The Committee entirely accepts that few aspects of public life in the United Kingdom are easily susceptible to tidying up, but many of the bodies we looked at are of fairly recent origin. It is not clear which of the many types of body which now exist should be regarded as an integral part of the Civil Service, bound by the Civil Service ethos, apart from executive agencies, where those employed are Civil Servants. Even in respect of executive agencies it is important that their relationship to the core departments should be clearly understood. Particular bodies should be constituted in particular ways for particular, well-understood reasons. Above all, it should be made explicitly clear in the case of each body which discharges a public function how accountability to Parliament and to the public is secured.

  426.    We conclude on the evidence we have heard that the outcome of the changes made over the last three decades has caused confusion. Given the very large number and variety of public bodies which have come into existence, we recommend that there should be a review to establish some clear, easily understood common principles to guide future developments of this kind.

The Effect of the Agencies on the Structure of the Civil Service (191-195)

  427.    Agencies were introduced against a background of privatisation, contracting out, the creation of internal markets within Government departments and the proliferation of non-departmental public bodies. If, despite initial doubts as to their precise status, we accept that executive agencies remain and should remain in all important respects an integral part of the Civil Service as a whole, the distinction between them on the one hand and privatised and non-departmental public bodies should have been made much clearer at the time, and it should be affirmed now.

  428.    On balance the Committee accepts that the creation of executive agencies has not, in a constitutional sense, recast the architecture of the state-so long but only so long as accountability of Ministers to Parliament for the work of executive agencies remains the same as their accountability for any other aspect of their Departments' work.

  429.    Nevertheless, the creation of the agencies has, in the Committee's view, contributed to some structural division of the Civil Service. There is firm evidence that the devolution to executive agencies of responsibility for pay and conditions of work is contributing to a sense of disunity in the Civil Service, and whatever the overall cost, the personnel management cost is bound to be higher. The fact that the agencies' budgets are subject to overall Treasury control means that in practice it is unlikely that very significant differences can develop between agencies, but the differences which already do exist contribute to a sense of cultural fragmentation, and we believe that such differences will continue to constitute a threat to the unity of the Civil Service. Devolved responsibility for pay and conditions has not fragmented the Civil Service yet: but there is a need to take care to ensure that the new arrangements do not fragment the service in the future.

  430.    We do not believe the risks and implications of this division were properly acknowledged or addressed as one structural change after another was introduced. The changes of organisation could have led to the fragmentation of the Civil Service. Indeed, some of our witnesses consider that the Civil Service was fragmented by the changes. We are not satisfied that, although divisions have taken place, there has been what can really be called a fragmentation of the Civil Service. Nevertheless, the real danger that such fragmentation could happen should be considered before any further structural changes are made. It is not safe to assume that a single strong ethos and a sense of shared loyalty to a unified service can without conscious effort be maintained across a wide range of differently constituted and geographically dispersed bodies. Most private sector organisations are well aware of this and devote considerable effort and resources to maintaining their corporate identity and fostering pride in it amongst their employees. Ministers and senior officials need to do the same-as was accepted by our witnesses.

  431.    The Committee recommends that the Minister in charge of the Office of Public Service should be given explicit responsibility for maintaining the unity and standards of the Civil Service and for monitoring the effect on them of any structural change.

The Effect of Recruitment from Outside (203)

  432.    There is a likelihood that, when outsiders are brought in to top positions, existing officials will individually be disappointed by the effect on their promotion prospects. We have not had evidence that this so far has had a generally harmful effect on either ethos or morale. There may, however, be a risk of such a harmful effect if a disproportionate number of top jobs are filled by external recruits.

Fixed-Term Contracts (206)

433.  The Committee recognises that the modern Civil Service is a profession of people who will not necessarily stay there for the whole of their careers. In a country where officials "carry around the constitution in their own minds" a strong element of continuity is, however, highly desirable in the Civil Service. This continuity may be threatened by over-use of recruitment from outside and the use of fixed term contracts. The Committee therefore considers it to be essential for Government, in pursuing these policies, to look to the future, and to have regard to the impact of them on the morale of Civil Servants, the collective memory of the Senior Civil Service, and the political impartiality of Senior Civil Servants. The Committee agrees with Dr Clark's view (notwithstanding his view that the use of short-term contracts is the only way to deal with an irregular workload) that such short-term contracts should be used to the absolute minimum.

Interchange of Staff (213)

  434.    The balance of the evidence which the Committee received suggested that the creation of agencies had not had an adverse impact on the interchange of staff. Opportunities are, if anything, wider than before, as officials now have the chance to gain experience in executive agencies as well as the core departments. The Committee takes the view that such interchange is of vital importance to the overall unity and coherence of the Civil Service. We therefore recommend that interchange of staff within and between departments and agencies is a matter which should not be left to chance, but which should be fostered by the Head of the Civil Service, and made one of the explicit responsibilities of the Minister in charge of the Office of Public Service.

Co-ordination across Structural Boundaries (223-226)

  435.    The Committee considers that if the Civil Service is made up of a large number of small administrative units, then care must be taken to ensure that all the parts work together for the good of the whole. The Permanent Secretaries who gave evidence to the Committee were all able to describe measures in place in their departments designed to ensure intra-departmental co-ordination. The Committee has no reason to believe that the establishment of agencies has had an adverse affect on the co-ordination of policy within departments.

  436.    Co-ordination between departments is another matter. The Committee is concerned by the evidence given by Sir Christopher Foster and Mr Francis Plowden about the decline of Cabinet committees and decreasing consultation of officials under successive Prime Ministers. The question of co-ordinating policy between departments is not a new one, and the Committee can only draw attention to the constitutional importance and inherent good sense attached to the consultation of officials when inter-departmental issues are discussed.

  437.    The Committee notes that it is a specified objective of the Office of Public Service to "maintain the essential coherence of the Civil Service while securing the benefits of devolution and management delegation". The Committee considers that overall monitoring of changes in the Civil Service is of the greatest importance, in order to ensure that there is some consistency of approach in changes made in different parts of the Civil Service, and to ensure that proposed structural changes are based on adequate information and that they reflect an overall, well-planned strategy.

  438.    We recommend that a Civil Service Act should include a requirement for the Government to report annually to Parliament on the recent and proposed structural changes to the Civil Service. We further recommend that whenever such a report is received, it should be referred to a Select Committee set up for the purpose of considering it. We think it desirable that the Government's Report, together with the Committee's Report on it, should then be published together with a recommendation as to whether the Committee's Report is made for information or debate.


  439.    The Committee concludes that beyond the most basic functions of passing laws and ensuring an independent judiciary there cannot be said to be an agreed definition of what functions must, as a matter of principle or of practicability, remain within the public service. In the absence of a codified constitution that is perhaps inevitable; but the question of the irreducible minimum remains important because many of our witnesses felt that the Civil Service had been undergoing a process of erosion. Since the erosion seemed to be proceeding rapidly, but apparently with no single fully articulated underlying purpose, the question naturally arose about where it might stop.

  440.    There is no doubt that some witnesses have felt that there was unease and concern about the changes which have been made in the Civil Service. It seems to us that the failure to draw a clear boundary around and explain the process of change has contributed to the uncertainty and feeling of insecurity alluded to by some of our witnesses. Nobody knew where the process would stop, or why. The absence of a clear scheme of underlying principle to explain and justify the changes added to the anxiety. These are matters which we have already raised in this Report.

  441.    The Committee acknowledges that it is far from simple to draw a boundary around the irreducible core of Government. To do it, it is necessary to consider what is the proper sphere of Government-a debate which has engaged both those who govern and the governed down the ages. It is nevertheless important that in a mature democracy it should be a matter for open and public debate and an issue in which Parliament should take a keen and vigilant interest. The question of what is the core of Government is as much a matter for the governed as for the governors. It seems to the Committee that it is desirable that the Government should produce its own concept of the irreducible core of functions which must be carried out by the core Civil Service, not least so as to allay the fear that there may be further erosion of the Civil Service in the future.

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