The accountability of civil servants - Constitution Committee Contents

The accountability of civil servants

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.  Relations between Parliament, the Government and the civil service and, in particular, the accountability of civil servants both to ministers and directly to Parliament, are constitutionally and politically significant. In the light of the Government's plans for reforming the civil service and events such as the recent cancelling of the West Coast Main Line contract, they are also very topical.

2.  Parliamentary scrutiny of individual government departments by select committees is now over 30 years old, and the rigorous questioning by select committees of individuals from both the public and private sectors has been long established. Recently, however, new questions have been raised about the personal accountability of civil servants, partly stimulated by the renewed energy of certain parliamentary committees, whose chairs are now directly elected by MPs. These changes can be seen as part of broader moves towards Parliament asserting its authority over the executive. The Constitution Committee therefore decided to undertake a focused inquiry into the accountability of civil servants.[1] In particular, our inquiry was prompted by the following developments—

  • the increasing complexity of government structure and functions;
  • the placing of the civil service on to a statutory footing for the first time;[2]
  • recent controversies surrounding the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee's questioning of civil servants other than Accounting Officers;[3]
  • our own report last session on ministerial responsibility and the National Health Service in England and Wales;[4] and
  • the Government's[5] recently published Civil Service Reform Plan.

1   A list of witnesses is in appendix 2. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence. Back

2   By Part 1 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Back

3   See for example the discussion at: Back

4   Constitution Committee, 22nd report (2010-12): Health and Social Care Bill: Follow-up (HL Paper 240). Back

5   This report is focused on relations between the UK Government, civil servants and Parliament. We did not seek to examine the situations as regards the devolved governments and legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Back

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