WHEN the senior civil servant Sir Peter Kemp was sacked earlier this year it made headline news. After all, it's not every day that the public has evidence of power struggles among the mandarins.

But for Whitehall watchers - particularly conspiracy theorists - the event had greater significance. What had them nodding sagely was Sir Peter's pedigree.

An accountant by training, he had risen through the ranks after joining the Civil Service in 1967, and won a high profile as project manager in charge of creating the 70 Next Steps agencies. When he became Permanent Secretary at the Office of Public Service and Science he was at the top of the Civil Service tree, on a salary of pounds 87,620. More importantly, his progress was seen as proof that the service was changing with the times. Sir Peter was not an Oxbridge man - in fact, he hadn't been to university at all.

Not surprisingly, this was seen as a factor in his abrupt exit. Commentators pointed to 'the Oxbridge factor' - the suspicion that the top echelons of the Civil Service are stuffed full of chaps from Oxford and Cambridge, who are wary of outsiders. Sir Peter said he had been told that 'someone with different skills' was needed. But a new publication might provide ammunition for the conspiracy theorists.

The Whitehall Companion, a guide to the structure and function of government departments, has found that Oxbridge graduates make up over half the civil servants in the top grades. The guide, which includes biographies of nearly 1,000 senior mandarins, reveals that nine of the 12 largest Whitehall departments are run by Oxbridge 'old boys'.

In the Treasury, 71 per cent of civil servants in the top four grades went to Oxbridge. In the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the proportion is 70 per cent. In some departments, particular Oxbridge colleges hold sway: seven of the DTI's top officials were graduates of Balliol, Oxford, or Peterhouse, Cambridge. 'The Oxbridge dominance in the top grades was a revelation to me,' says the guide's editor, Hilary Muggridge.

And the Oxbridge influence still prevails: last year, graduates of the two universities made up 41 per cent of the civil service's fast stream intake - a 7 per cent increase on the previous year.

But the service is consciously trying to widen recruitment, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office says. Last year, Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, started an initiative to create links between Whitehall and non-

Oxbridge universities and polytechnics. Under the scheme, 30 or so top civil servants 'adopt' one or two institutions each, visiting them to present prizes or speak in debates. 'It's been very positively received,' the spokeswoman says. But it will take some time to work; latest published figures show that in 1991, a total of 353 university graduates (including 154 from Oxbridge) joined the fast-stream entry, compared with 246 in 1990. The figures for polytechnics were 21 and 12 respectively.

The fast-track high flyers are the students 'with the potential to reach grade 5 or above'. They need a good first degree and the stamina to withstand being tested in groups and individually by the Civil Service Selection Board.

Once in, they can expect to make it to the top within 15 to 20 years. But for lesser mortals the pace of promotion is frustratingly slow. One insider explains: 'Part of the problem is that it's practically impossible to get from grade 5 (equivalent to senior management) to grade 3 (equivalent to director level).'

One way the high flyers make it to the top is to get a secondment out of the Civil Service. Rosie Golding, a researcher who has studied the importance of secondments, found that this helped those whose careers were stuck to get through the promotion barrier. 'One civil servant proved himself invaluable on his secondment, and from outside the service applied for a promotion. He got it - but he would never have been allowed to go for it internally,' she says.

Ms Golding also found that a non-traditional group of civil servants was moving up the ranks. She calls them the '1960s aesthetes': 'They are usually married, their spouse is working and they have no children. If they do, they go to state schools. These are very high flying people - they have dedicated their lives to the Civil Service. And they don't like the traditional, fee-paying school and Oxbridge types - this lot went to grammar school.'

A consultant who spent two and a half years on secondment to Whitehall agrees that the promotional structure is still a problem. 'Unless they're high fliers, people tend to remain at the same grade for years. It's obviously different if you're brought in from outside to run something specific, but for a career manager it's very difficult. There's a lack of purpose. It's still a fairly ponderous life.'

Although secondments are something of a double-edged sword for the service - 'too many people never come back' says one insider, darkly - there is a body in Whitehall to promote them. The Whitehall and Industry group, started in 1984 as a joint venture between Whitehall and the Cabinet Office, aims to give 'top civil servants' first-hand experience of industry and commerce. A spokeswoman says: 'It usually involves assistant secretaries to under secretaries. The key thing is they are fast track people, usually policy makers in their 30s and 40s.' Companies involved with the group include Cadbury Schweppes, Marks & Spencer and Trafalgar House. In 1991, 50 civil servants went into industry and, in a new move, 17 industrialists tasted life in the Civil Service. There are other programmes, too. Some 1,411 civil servants went out on secondments of a month or more, and 413 outsiders ventured in.

However, even secondments have done little to shake up the upper echelons. The Whitehall Companion found that women made up only 8 per cent of its 980 entries. There are no female permanent secretaries in the UK Civil Service, only nine at grade two and 36 at grade 3. And 16 departments, including the Inland Revenue, Education and the Welsh Office, have no women at all in the top three grades.

Ms Muggridge is philosophical about the small number of women in the top ranks. 'The day a woman becomes a permanent secretary will be a real breakthrough,' she says. As permanent secretaries are chosen from grade 2 level, it may still take some time. Out of 115 grade 2 officials, there are a total of nine women. Civil Service statistics maintain that women's lot is improving. In March, Tim Renton, the civil service minister, announced that women made up 42 per cent of executive officers, compared with 29 per cent in 1984. At grade 5, the percentage had doubled from 7 to 14 per cent over the same period.

But the progress of recruits from ethnic minorities is still slow. According to the 1992 report of the Civil Service Commissioners, none of the 452 ethnic minority applicants for the fast-stream made it to the final selection board. At senior grades, ethnic minority representation increased from 1.7 per cent in 1990 to 1.8 per cent in 1991.

Meanwhile, Ms Muggridge is gearing up for the next edition of the Whitehall Companion. On current form, the Oxbridge dominance won't have changed. 'With the talk of trying to bring more non-Oxbridge people in, it is happening, but slowly,' she says.

The Whitehall Companion 1992, published by Dod's Publishing & Research, pounds 125.

Bridging the Gap - Secondments in the Civil Service by Rosie Golding and Sandra Nutley, published by RIPA with the Cabinet Office, 1990.

(Photograph omitted)