The accountability of civil servants - Constitution Committee Contents


Ministers are by convention constitutionally responsible to Parliament for all the actions of their civil servants, and civil servants are accountable to ministers. In recent times, however, with the development of new forms of parliamentary scrutiny, select committees have increasingly held civil servants directly to account; and ministers have on occasion tended to distance themselves from failures in government, stating that the errors were made by civil servants.

In this report on the accountability of civil servants, we make the following recommendations—

  • The convention of individual ministerial responsibility remains essential for enabling Parliament to hold the executive properly to account. Whilst the convention can be supplemented by other accountability mechanisms, these should not dilute ministers' constitutional responsibility to Parliament.
  • The Osmotherly rules, which provide guidance to civil servants on relations with select committees, in no way have the effect of imposing restrictions on the activities of select committees. It is for Parliament to determine how it scrutinises the executive.
  • However, in view of the importance of the rules in guiding civil servants in their dealings with select committees, we recommend that future revisions of the rules should be published in draft to enable scrutiny by Parliament and its select committees.
  • It is essential that civil servants provide ministers with candid and fearless advice, including on the constitutionality of proposed actions. Ultimately ministers are free to reject that advice; they should accept the political consequences of doing so.
  • A select committee should be able to request access to relevant policy advice given by civil servants to ministers, on the rare occasions where it considers it essential to its examination of an issue; ministers should consider such requests on their merits; and the decision on whether to disclose the advice should be taken consistent with the tests in the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
  • Where select committees wish to criticise named civil servants, they should be free to do so, though this power should be exercised judiciously; the disciplining of civil servants must remain an internal matter for government departments.
  • Where a select committee asks to take evidence from a named civil servant, ministers should only reject the request in exceptional circumstances.
  • Any changes to the process for appointing permanent secretaries and temporary civil servants should protect the principle of appointment on merit, on the basis of fair and open competition. The process should also ensure that those appointed as civil servants possess the attributes of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.
  • There should be a presumption that major projects will be led by the same senior civil servant from beginning to end. Many high-profile failings of government in recent years have been on long-term projects or procurement; this change will enhance the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account for such projects.
  • Former post-holders should give evidence to select committees when requested on projects or policies on which they used to work.
  • Ministers must not use the existence of an arm's-length body to avoid their constitutional responsibilities to Parliament: the accountability mechanisms of arm's-length bodies are a supplement to, not a replacement for, ministerial responsibility.

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