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.
157. The advantages of a single Home Civil Service
were presented in evidence by various officials.
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.
The brand acknowledges the value of diversity, and a common service
facilitates comprehensive and co-ordinated action to make progress
in this field.
The Civil Service brand is thus a well established one, appreciated
by officials and recognised by others well beyond the civil service
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.
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
Fewer staff from the NICS seem to be involved in such exchanges.
The value of such exchanges extends beyond the individuals directly
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.
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.
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..
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
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.
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