Ministers accept code for Civil Service

White Paper aims to limit damage from Nolan report with offer of statut ory rules for ethical standards. Nicholas Timmins reports
A new code of ethics for the Civil Service and a right of appeal to a strengthened, more independent Civil Service Commission was conceded yesterday by the Government.

And in a remarkable attempt at consensus politics, the Government said it had an "open mind" on giving both the code and the commissioners the new statutory status demanded by the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee last November.

David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said the Government would act if broad agreement could be reached with the Opposition on "narrowly based" legislation.

Yesterday's announcement was seen as government recognition that amid the allegations of falling standards in public life, and with the Nolan and Scott inquiries due to report in the next few months, action to defuse their likely findings was needed. Mr Hunt is also shortly to announce new guidance on ethics for quango members.

The offer of cross-party agreement on a new statutory code puts the ball firmly back in Labour's court while reducing the Opposition's opportunity to make political capital.

Ann Taylor, Shadow Leader of the House, welcomed the move while warning agreement might not be easy. A "first sign of good faith", she said, would be for the Government to consult on who is to be the new First Civil Service Commissioner. Under yesterday's White Paper, the new commissioner, whose job has been advertised, will no longer be a serving civil servant and will have a strengthened role ensuring that all civil servants are appointed on merit and through open competition.

Commissioners will audit departments' and agencies' performance and will approve all senior appointments from outside the civil service. The First Commissioner will in future sit on the senior appointments committee of top civil servants which recommendsappointments to ministers. Any breach of selection on merit will be disclosed in the commissioner's annual report.

The White Paper, aimed at protecting "the political impartiality and professional standards of all civil servants" was hailed as "a quantum step forward" by Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, a specialist on Whitehall, and as "a major U-turn" by the First Division Association (FDA), the top civil servants' union. The Liberal Democrats said it was "a welcome reversal of policy".

The Government has acted despite Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, telling the committee that an independent appeal system would "enshrine distrust" between ministers and civil servants.

When finally agreed, the new code will be given to all 530,000 civil servants with a condition to abide by it written into their terms and conditions of service. Ministers will be required to read and honour it. Civil servants who believe it has been breached and have exhausted internal procedures will be able to appeal to the commissioners, who will have powers of investigation. They will be able to report to Parliament if ministers refuse to act on their recommendations.

The draft code underlines the "integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity" of civil servants and emphasises ministers' duty to give Parliament and the public "as full information as possible about the policies, decisions and actions of the Government and not to deceive or knowingly mislead Parliament and the public".

The code underscores civil servants' duty of confidentiality, both during and after employment, and excludes any suggestion that they have a separate duty to the public interest - an element the FDA sought in its draft code.

Elizabeth Symonds, general secretary of the FDA, said parts of the code were "rather weak" but warmly welcomed the commitment to one.

Sir Robin Butler, who said he had "no reservations" about the new procedures, said civil servants "clearly should not reach an independent view of what is in the public interest". It was for ministers to do that.

The White Paper confirms plans for a new senior Civil Service and new flexible pay arrangements and written contracts for senior staff, including permanent secretaries. But it rejects select committee recommendations that ministers should subject themselves to an efficiency scrutiny and that agency chief executives should be directly accountable to select committees for their annual performance agreements.

9 The Civil Service: Taking Forward Continuity and Change, Cmnd 2627; HMSO; £7.90.