Five-year contracts urged for senior civil servants

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TOP civil servants should have five-year contracts and share the blame for policy blunders, according to a cross-party group.

The European Policy Forum argues in a report published yesterday that the most senior 650 Whitehall civil servants should be paid at market rates in return for a far higher degree of public accountability.

Graham Mather, president of the forum, says that top civil servants cannot escape their share of the blame for 'systematic policy failure under governments of different colours'.

Among the failures listed in a submission to the House of Commons' Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee are 'stop-go' economic policies, under-performing state education and defective legal advice on the Maastricht treaty and pit closures.

Whitehall's 36 permanent secretaries, 130 deputy secretaries and 487 under-secretaries form a 'corps of permanent policy-makers with security of tenure and are impervious to objective assessment of their performance'.

The problem was not the 'politicisation' of the civil service but that 'civil servants may be at the same time high-minded and under-performing', the report says. It argues that the organisation of Whitehall should reflect the sharing of power between ministers and civil servants.

'Government departments should have policy boards including ministers, civil servants and outside experts and agency chiefs with defined policy responsibilities who would take the credit for successful policies and the blame when things go wrong.'

In constitutional theory, decisions were taken by ministers whose civil servants confined themselves to advice and implementation. In practice, decisions were taken by ministers relying heavily on top officials. 'It is worrying if Yes, Minister more accurately describes the way Whitehall works than the best available statements of the constitutional position.'

The new system would bring policy-making civil servants into line with colleagues in the Next Step agencies and with local authority chief executives. There should also be a clear and up-to- date code of conduct.

Mr Mather also believes the change would make a period in government more attractive to executives in the private sector.

Responsibility, Accountability and Standards in Government; European Policy Forum; 29 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1.

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