The accountability of civil servants - Constitution Committee Contents

CHAPTER 6: Summary of Recommendations

Ministerial responsibility for the civil service

114.  We conclude that the convention that ministers are constitutionally responsible for all aspects of their departments' business is an essential principle underlying the arrangements that enable Parliament properly to perform its function of holding the Government to account. The convention is clear, straightforward and leaves no gaps. (Para 12)

115.  We maintain our view that there is no constitutional difference between the terms responsibility and accountability. (Para 17)

Accountability of civil servants to ministers

116.  However the existing appointments process for permanent secretaries may be modified, it must continue to conform fully with the constitutional principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. In particular, any modified process should protect the principle of appointment on merit, on the basis of fair and open competition. (Para 29)

117.  The Government should set out, in detail, the nature of the temporary appointments scheme they envisage. They should put in place safeguards to ensure that those civil servants on fixed-term contracts possess the civil service attributes set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. Ministers should be limited to requesting the category of expertise which they consider is required; the decision on which individual to appoint should rest with the relevant departmental permanent secretary, with the approval of the Civil Service Commission. (Para 35)

118.  It would be entirely inappropriate for ministers to be formally empowered to make disciplinary decisions about civil servants in their departments. We recognise, however, that ministers have an important and legitimate consultative role in the performance management of civil servants. Accordingly, we support the Government's proposal to allow ministers to contribute to the appraisal of certain civil servants. (Para 39)

119.  We recommend that there should be a presumption that a single senior civil servant will lead the implementation of a major project from beginning to end. This will enhance the ability of Parliament, through its select committees, to hold the executive to account for the success or failure of such projects. (Para 44)

120.  The power to seek a ministerial direction is therefore a significant one, and its very existence no doubt prevents impropriety in some cases. (Para 49)

121.  We do not recommend any additional powers for the civil service to act as a check on the constitutionality of ministerial actions. However, we would expect ministers to treat advice that they may be acting unconstitutionally with the utmost seriousness. (Para 53)

122.  In our view, the constitutional position as regards special advisers is clear: ministers are responsible for the actions of their special advisers. Ministers have a duty to ensure their special advisers abide by the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers at all times. (Para 59)

Accountability of civil servants to Parliament

123.  The Osmotherly rules are an executive document offering guidance to civil servants—and no more. They 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. (Para 70)

124.  However, in view of the importance of the Osmotherly 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. Whatever the outcome of that scrutiny, the rules will remain an executive document and should not be taken to have the formal approval of Parliament. (Para 71)

125.  We recommend that where a select committee requests evidence from a named senior civil servant the Government should accede to that request unless there are exceptional reasons not to do so. Taking evidence from civil servants is complementary to, not a replacement for, the accountability of ministers. We recommend that the revised Osmotherly rules incorporate this change in emphasis. (Para 79)

126.  We agree with the proposal in the Civil Service Reform Plan to allow former Accounting Officers to give evidence to select committees on major projects and policies on which they had formerly worked. We recommend that this principle should be extended so that, where select committees request evidence from other former senior civil service post holders (whether or not they are still in the civil service) on policies or projects on which they used to work, the expectation is that such requests will be acceded to. (Para 85)

127.  We do not think it satisfactory that select committees are deemed by the Osmotherly rules to have weaker rights of access to civil service policy advice than those making a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We recommend that 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. The decision on whether to disclose policy advice should be taken by a minister, consistent with the tests in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The minister may decide to disclose a summary or relevant extracts rather than the whole of the advice. Select committees should be judicious in requesting such advice; in return, the Government should consider each request on its merits and not reject them out of hand. (Para 92)

128.  For the avoidance of doubt, civil servants themselves should not, and should not be invited to, disclose the policy advice they give to ministers: it is for ministers, not civil servants, to waive the confidentiality of such advice. (Para 93)

129.  We are conscious that select committees are not disciplinary tribunals and do not contain the safeguards that employees are entitled to in a disciplinary process. However, when the evidence a committee receives leads it to conclude that a particular civil servant has been at fault, that committee should not be precluded from expressing criticism and, in extreme cases, recommending that the department consider appropriate disciplinary procedures. (Para 99)

130.  Select committees should only take such action where there are strong grounds for doing so. The decision on all such disciplinary matters should remain within the relevant department. (Para 100)

Arm's-length bodies

131.  We recommend that the Government publish, maintain and make available to Parliament a full diagram of the central state, similar to an organisational chart. (Para 106)

132.  The accountability mechanisms of ALBs are a supplement to ministers' constitutional responsibility to Parliament, not a replacement for it. The primary means by which public servants in ALBs are held to account is via the convention of individual ministerial responsibility. (Para 113)

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