The accountability of civil servants - Constitution Committee Contents


The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, chaired by Baroness Jay, is announcing today an inquiry into the accountability of civil servants. The Committee invites interested organisations and individuals to submit written evidence as part of the inquiry. The Committee intends to focus on those in the home civil service.

Written evidence is sought by Friday 8 June 2012. Public hearings are expected to be held in May, June and July. The Committee aims to report to the House, with recommendations, before the end of the year. The report will receive a response from the Government and may be debated in the House.

Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG), the civil service has for the first time been placed on a statutory basis. The Act enshrines the four civil service attributes of integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity, and requires the publication of codes of conduct for civil servants and for special advisers.

The accountability of the government to Parliament is governed by the convention of individual ministerial responsibility. Under this convention, civil servants are responsible to ministers, and ministers in turn are responsible to Parliament.[146] The rationale behind this arrangement is to protect the impartiality and anonymity of civil servants. However, the convention does not prevent civil servants giving evidence to parliamentary select committees on their minister's behalf. The government's position on the relationship between the civil service and select committees is contained in the document Departmental Evidence and Response to Select Committees (known as the "Osmotherly Rules").[147] These are, and always have been, drafted by and for the executive, without parliamentary input or express approval.

This convention has become subject to a number of criticisms, generally on the grounds that it is no longer an effective means of holding the government fully to account, and that it does not adequately reflect the distribution of power and responsibility between ministers, civil servants and special advisers. Proposals for reform of the system of civil service accountability have included calls for civil servants to be held directly accountable to Parliament (via select committees), and suggestions that ministers should become involved in senior civil service appointments.

As well as these general concerns, specific constitutional issues arise in the case of non-ministerial departments: government departments where, due to the nature of the work being undertaken by the department, it is not desirable for the department to be overseen by a minister directly.[148] Each non-ministerial department has a "sponsoring" minister, who is accountable to Parliament for its actions. However, questions exist over the effectiveness, and desirability, of ministers being held accountable for the actions of bodies over which they have limited control and information.

The Committee would also welcome evidence on the status of special advisers. Special advisers occupy an unusual place in the civil service. Technically civil servants, they are exempt from the usual requirement of impartiality, objectivity, and appointment on merit, and as such are appointed to provide ministers with advice and support with regard to the political (and party political) aspects of government. Though prohibited from managing civil servants, the code of conduct for special advisers does allow them to communicate the minister's views and work priorities, and to request that permanent civil servants prepare and provide information and data. The influence of special advisers in government, and the mechanisms (or lack of them) for holding special advisers accountable for their work, are also of central interest to the Committee.

The Committee would welcome written submissions on the accountability of civil servants and related issues. Questions the Committee will consider include:


Does the convention of individual ministerial responsibility remain the most appropriate and effective means of holding the government to account?

If the current model of individual ministerial responsibility is no longer appropriate, what should replace it?

Do the civil servants' and special advisers' codes of conduct require amendment?

To what extent should the content of the civil servants' and special advisers' codes of conduct be set down in statute? If so, how might CRAG be amended to achieve this?

The accountability of civil servants to ministers

To what extent has the expansion of government activity, and the increasingly fractured nature of the state, weakened the ability of ministers to account for their civil servants?

What, if any, influence should ministers be able to exercise over home civil service appointments? What are the constitutional benefits and risks of allowing such influence? Are there any particular civil service posts to which special considerations apply?

To what extent does the home civil service act as a constitutional check on the actions of ministers? How does this check operate? Is a constitutional check on ministers by civil servants appropriate?

If such a "check" function exists, to what extent does it distort the operation of individual ministerial responsibility? What are the implications of this distortion?

The accountability of civil servants to Parliament

In what circumstances, if any, is it appropriate for civil servants to be held directly accountable to Parliament?

Would direct accountability risk the politicisation of the home civil service?

If so, is civil service politicisation always and necessarily something to be avoided? In what circumstances should it be permitted, and what would be the benefits of politicisation?

Where civil servants should be held directly accountable to Parliament, is there a case for (enhanced) parliamentary involvement in their appointment?

Is there a case for redrafting the Osmotherly Rules? If so, what, if any, involvement should Parliament have in the process?

The accountability of non-ministerial departments

Are the current accountability mechanisms for non-ministerial departments effective? If not, how should they be altered?

Where should the balance lie between accountability and operational independence? Is this balance correctly struck at present?

Do the boards of non-ministerial departments provide adequate oversight of, and accountability for, their departments? If not, how should this model be altered?

The accountability of special advisers

What is the level of influence exercised by special advisers, both in theory and in real terms?

What are the current accountability mechanisms for special advisers, and

are these appropriate to the level of influence they possess?

Is there a case for increasing the accountability of special advisers to Parliament? How should any such accountability mechanism operate in practice?

International perspectives

How do other countries with Westminster-style parliaments hold their executives to account? What lessons can be learned from these international comparators?

You need not address all these questions. The Committee would also welcome any other views of which stakeholders think the Committee should be aware.

146   A more detailed discussion of individual ministerial responsibility can be found in the Constitution Committee's 22nd Report of Session 2010-12, Health and Social Care Bill: Follow-Up, in appendix 1, available online here: Back

147 Back

148   Examples include HM Revenue and Customs, the UK Statistics Authority, and the Office of Fair Trading. Back

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